Can We Stop Hovering?


A decade of helicopter parenting has resulted in less-independent children and a backlash from fed-up parents
Section: Main , Page: A1Date: Sunday, December 13, 2009

Arielle Ewell can't seem to escape the advances of other moms who tout how much their kids have benefited from gymnastics programs and music classes and suggest that she enroll her son.
He's 21 months old.

"I don't want to dis someone else's approach to parenting, but it just seems so unnecessary," says Ewell, a first-time mom from Albany . "He can't even stand still when we're in line. He's going to take to the lesson plan? I don't think so."

In the last decade, "helicopter parents" have landed in the spotlight, facing public fire for coddling their children and micromanaging every moment of their lives.

This year, a backlash to helicoptering that calls for a more simplified approach came with the release of two books -- "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids" by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross and "Free-Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy.

While a less-is-more parenting philosophy that encourages additional downtime and less adult interference might seem a little old-school to some, advocates say a crop of dependent young adults and stressed-out kids raised by hovering parents begs for some kind of change.

Kim John Payne, a family therapist from Columbia County and co-author of "Simplicity Parenting," says today's kids are under so much parent-applied pressure that they're exhibiting behaviors similar to refugee children he once counseled for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kathleen Crowley, a professor of psychology at The College of Saint Rose, says parents' eagerness to overdirect their children's lives has led to young adults who are less independent and creative than the generation before. Twenty years ago, Crowley announced an upcoming test in her college classes and that was the end of the discussion.

Now, she says she's expected to provide students with a study guide so they know exactly how to prepare, and she's had these same young adults come to her in tears because they'd earned their first B and didn't know how to cope. Because of this "extended adolescence," when these students graduate and enter their careers, they're now offered workplace mentoring and on-the-job training just to ensure their success.

"Among the parents I have been speaking to as a mom and a developmental psychologist, we're a little shocked looking at our children -- when they get to be 18, 19, 20 -- how little they're able to do for themselves," says Crowley, who admits she's been guilty of helicoptering in the past and was once stunned when her then 16-year-old said he couldn't make a tuna fish sandwich for his younger brother because he didn't know how to work the can opener. "They're not independent, and if you reflect on the parenting styles in the last decade or so, we've done everything we can to make them not independent. We've supervised them in every circumstance. We've scheduled them. We've made sure their food choices were limited. We kept them in the house to keep them from perceived dangers that lurked around the corner."

Unlike previous generations of parents, today's moms and dads have been raised themselves in a culture of fear. They're bombarded by cable news reports of child abductions and pitches by companies marketing GPS locators for children. Parenting magazines offer articles on "the secret to better grades" and "raising a more talkative toddler," ratcheting up the pressure to "get it right."

And so parents who grew up cruising the neighborhood on bicycles and playing impromptu baseball games until their mothers called them for dinner (by yelling, not by cellphone) are now parents who confine play to the driveway and shuttle their children to baseball practice three days a week and to soccer games the other four.

They fill the downtime of a car ride with DVD players to ward off boredom, take up their children's playground battles by e-mailing the principal and calling the parents of the offending students, and help their children skirt failure at all cost by riding them about homework rather than allowing them to face the consequences of not doing it.

That's lead Payne and authors such as Skenazy, who was labeled "America's Worst Mom" because she allowed her 9-year-old to ride the New York City subway alone last year, to tell today's parents they should back off if they want their children to truly grow.

"I'm not suggesting doing this to have sleepy little hippie kids," he says. "I'm suggesting that we do this to have really smart, successful kids who are not anxious and jumpy adults."

Payne says he's counseled middle-class suburban kids who have exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"But there was no huge, defining moment. Rather than being post-traumatic stress disorder, I came to think of it as cumulative stress reaction," he says. "And when we talk about preparing the children for the world, I always ask, "whose world?"

Payne goes through his client's homes with a trash bag gathering up excess toys, too many of which can overwhelm young kids. He suggests limits on -- if not elimination of -- time spent in front of the television. He warns parents to save conversations about the stresses of work or the latest reports of violence in the news until after their children have gone to bed.

And he offers parents permission to sit and read a magazine while their kids figure out ways to fill their own day.

Boredom, a problem parents once solved by heaping on chores or shrugging their shoulders, has become a scourge many of today's parents avoid at all costs.

Crowley remembers her youngest son asking to bring his GameBoy to his older brother's graduation ceremony because it was going to be boring.

"I said, 'Yes you're going to be bored, and that's OK. That's a very important skill to learn.' I would not be where I am today if I had not learned to sit through a very boring event," she says. "We don't teach them that being bored sometimes is normal. That's when you can start doing some of your own creative thinking."

But many parents just want to create a world for their children fueled by 24-7 happiness, which fails to give them the tools they need to survive when they enter the actual world and face disappointment, rejection and refrigerators that aren't always stocked. (That's why more and more young adults look to move back in with mom and dad after they graduate, Crowley says.)

As much as adults talk to children about rising above peer pressure, many parents have failed to do the same when it comes to helicoptering.

"Parent need to get the message, too: We're going to not be perfect. We're going to screw up, too, no matter how smart, no matter how dedicated, something's going to go wrong someplace," she says.

She relays the story of a colleague who wanted to allow her 9- and 6-year-olds to take the city bus to school on their own.

"So she walked them to the bus stop, gave them the tokens, and she met them on the other side, and another mother looked at them and said, 'I can't believe you let them do that by themselves.' (She) rode a bike and met them on the other end to walk them into the school, and still, she gets scolded," Crowley says.

Some parents, inspired by books like "Free-Range Kids" and "Simplicity Parenting," want to avoid the consequences of too much parental interference. Like Ewell, they're keeping their 21-month-olds out of piano lessons and off of T-ball teams. They're letting their children stack blocks and pretend they're a tower to the moon.

Some of that simplification has been forced by the recession, Crowley says, as parents have to pare down household budgets and ditch the extra activities and toys. But that doesn't mean those things won't return as soon as the economy recovers.

"This trend of complexity is probably going to persist for a good while, which isn't to say that parents shouldn't reflect on that and fight the good fight," she says.

"I think it's still a minority for those who are doing it. I do think that there is ongoing conversation. (The) young woman whose son took the bus and she got scolded from it? She's really thinking about this. She's looking at these kids and saying, 'Gee, they're capable of doing more than I'm supposed to let them do."

Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or [email protected] Visit her blog at

BOX: Tips for the right balance

Kim John Payne, a counselor, educator and co-author of "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier and More Secure Kids," offers these tips to parents:

DECLUTTERING THE ENVIRONMENT: The average child has more than 150 toys, Payne says. Keep a few of your child's favorite toys in sight and put the rest away. The same goes for books. Cycle stored books and toys through the "display" periodically so the child gets to enjoy each item without having to dig through a pile.

SCHEDULE: The ideal mix for a child's schedule is one-third downtime, one-third creative time and one-third busy/scheduled time. Create family routines such as "pizza night" or "game night," which can be comforting to a child.

DOWNTIME: Don't underestimate the "gift" of boredom, Payne says. Balance busy days with calm ones. And model the importance of downtime by insisting on it for everyone, including yourself.

QUIET MOMENTS: Don't talk too much to children 9 or younger about their feelings. They don't really understand their own emotions, and pressing them too hard to explain what they're feeling can make them nervous, Payne says. Keep adult conversations and problems among adults. And limit what is said in your home to that which is "kind, true and necessary."