Why I’m Not Cheering the “Helicopter Parents Have Neurotic Kids” Study

Hi Readers! A bunch of you have forwarded this story, from livescience.com, that I’ve been mulling for days:

‘Helicopter’ Parents Have Neurotic Kids, Study Suggests

The piece is about a study of 300 college freshmen that found the students who are “dependent, neurotic and less open,” may have their over-involved, over-worried, helicopter parents to thank for crippling them. It even went on to say that  “in non-helicoptered students who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents, so-called ‘free rangers,’ the effects were reversed.” [Boldface, mine.]

So here’s our movement, being scientifically legitimized, and even called by its rightful name — the one coined right here! So why am I not jumping up and down and shouting, “Told ya so!”? Two reasons:

First, the story includes three of the questions that were asked of the students to determine if their parents were the “helicopter” type.

Participants had to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me,” “On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted,” and “If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me.”

By those criteria, I pretty much qualify as a helicopter mom. I have spoken to my son’s school when he was having problems. (As recently as  yesterday!) And I am pretty sure that if and when, God willing, we drop our kids off at college, we will help them unpack and then stay the night in a nearby hotel before bidding them goodbye in the morning. Just like my parents did when they dropped me off at school. What’s the big deal?

As for constant contact, I’m not sure how often we’ll call back and forth, but I just can’t see that as a black and white, helicopter vs. free-range issue. In my book I do suggest leaving your cell phone at home some times, so your kids can’t call and ask you to solve all their problems or make all their decisions — e.g., “Can I have a snack before I start my homework?” But if they call from college every couple of days to say hi, is that fatal to their characters or damning of ours? I don’t think so. Which brings me to —

Point #2: Who says it is the parents and only the parents who shape a child’s entire personality and outlook on life? That’s the very same belief — parents as Michelangelo, kids as clay — that motivates helicopter parents in the first place. If you really see your child as yours and yours alone to create or destroy, naturally you are going to worry about optimizing every single moment. That’s a big burden.  Every parental choice looms large because it is seen through the lens of MAKING or BREAKING the child. One of the cardinal rules in my book is to let go of the idea we CAN control  everything about our kids. As if there’s no such thing as luck, genes, other relatives, teachers, siblings, the neighborhood, quirks and a million other influences.

A study like this — a study like so many that academia seems to churn out on a daily basis, pointing fingers and purporting to be able to boil down an entire person to how good or bad a job his parents did raising him — is so  simplistic as to be meaningless.

Which is not to say I still don’t believe wholeheartedly in the idea of giving our kids more freedom and responsibility and hovering less. I do think it is great for them — and great for us. But we are not the only influence on our children, and one of the reasons parents are being driven so CRAZY these days is because everyone seems ready to blame us for any problem our kids ever evidence or endure.

Yes, it’s nice to see Free-Range Kids endorsed in the parenting-obsessed media. It’s too bad the parenting-obsessed media is still part of the problem.   — Lenore

A Wonk Ponders Parenting

Hi Readers! I got this essay from Prof. Steven Horwitz, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY. (La di dah!) Thought it made a lot of sense, even if it’s a little academic. Enjoy! And if you want to drop him a note, his email is-sghorwitz@stlawu.edu. — Lenore

To Be A More Confident Parent, Think Like An Economist by Steven Horwitz

In Lenore’s book, she has a chapter urging parents, “Don’t Think Like A Lawyer: Some Risks are Worth It.” I’d like to propose its corollary: “DO Think Like an Economist.” (And not just because I am one.)

When economists make decisions they compare the costs of one choice versus the cost of another. That leads us to the idea of “trade-offs.”  Sometimes, reducing one kind of cost to zero — say, “zero chance of abduction” — means forgoing some other valuable benefit.  Say, “learning independence,” or, “becoming street-smart” or even, “walking to school every day and not getting fat.” The trick is to find the happy medium.

When economists show this idea visually, we can’t help ourselves. We draw a graph. The two axes represent the trade-off as a curve from one axis to another.  The point where one cost is reduced to zero while the cost of the other is maximized is called a “corner solution” because it appears at the corner of one of the axes.  Generally, economists see “corner solutions” as bad because they don’t recognize any trade-offs as worthwhile. They represent a consumer willing to forgo ANY and ALL benefits of budging, even a little bit.

For example, dwelling on worst-case scenarios about childhood risks puts parents in the corner.  Trying to protect our children from any and all forms of potential danger makes us willing to sacrifice other things that are valuable, such as the self-reliance that comes from exploring the woods, or the neighborhood.  When we focus only on the bad things that could happen on an overnight camping trip, for example, we keep the kids home. They don’t get to learn how to respond to the unexpected (like rain). They don’t get to hear ghost stories that they’ll tell THEIR kids. They don’t even get to roast a weiner.

Likewise, when we drive our kids to the bus stop, we put them at greater risk of a car accident in the name of preventing the very remote danger of abduction. At the same time, we’re  stifling their independence. So we’ve made them MORE likely to suffer a car accident and LESS self-confident. That’s a big trade-off, considering how remote the chance of abduction is to begin with.

If you think like an economist, you can get out of these “corners” by doing two things.  First: Try to make a truly accurate assessment of the risk involved in your choice (I recommend reading some solid statistics). Second: Ask yourself, “What are the benefits that go with taking this (often tiny) risk?”

Remember: Risk can never be reduced to zero. Moreover, the goal of parenting is not solely to “minimize risk,” but to help our kids grow up and embrace the world. Remember, too, that risk also means the possibility of failure – and that’s great! Failure is part of the learning process.  Let your kids be responsible for remembering their lunch and you run the risk that one day they’ll leave it at home and get really hungry. But that also carries the huge benefit of them learning, perhaps by forgetting, how to organize themselves for the school day.

Thinking like an economist beats thinking like a lawyer, hands down. But even thinking like a lawyer beats the very worst: Thinking like a politician — and continually bailing them out when they fail!