The Plague of Helicopter Parents

“The one to whom nothing was refused, whose tears were always wiped away by an anxious mother, will not abide being offended.”

- Seneca, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

One of the rules in Catholic Youth Organization golf is:

“Spectators should stay at least fifteen yards from the players while playing each hole. A two-stroke penalty will be issued if it seems apparent to a scorer or coach or another parent that a parent or scorekeeper is assisting a child with club selection or choice, putt breaks, rule choices, or if said adult is giving aid in any way to his or her son or daughter or team member.”

Yet, there we all were, watching this doting mother walking side-by-side with her son for every shot. Thinking it could not get any more obnoxious, I was slightly amazed when she began to fan him from the heat, allow him to ride in her golf cart, and make us all wait far beyond the permitted three minutes to look for an errant shot by her young Tiger Woods.

At the end of the match, I was saying my goodbye to a couple of the parents when one commented on the excessive heat of the day. I simply could not help myself by leaving them with this consolation, “Well, at least we had the wind from that Helicopter Parent!”

To be fair, parenting is hard work. As parents, we spend a great deal of time working on ways to help our kids succeed. With all of that hard work, there hardly seems time for what may be one of the most important things we can do for our kids . . . Let them fail.

Now, I am not suggesting that we intentionally set our kids up to fail, or that we don’t do everything in our power to instill in them the desire to excel in whatever they do; however, how they get to the finish line is just as important as when they get there.

It’s funny, but if we’re honest with ourselves and we think back about the most important lessons we learned in our young lives, they probably revolved around some kind of failure; some time when we just didn’t measure up and we had to either live with it or, if possible, persevere through whatever the challenge was in order to come out on the other side better for it. Why, then, do we spend so much time trying to shield our kids from the very experiences that, with an adult perspective, we can now see were so valuable?

Children can only develop virtue by practicing it. Most virtues are gained through struggle.

Well, why does anyone do something stupid? Simple. The reason people do stupid things is because they mistakenly believe that those stupid things will make them happy. So when we step in to prevent our children from failing, we honestly believe in our hearts that our kids will be happier if they succeed rather than if they fail. And they might be . . . in the short term.

But parenting is not about the short term.

There are two big problems with never allowing your children to fail (helicopter):

1. Virtue is a habit. Children can only develop virtue by practicing it. Most virtues are gained through struggle. No struggle—no virtue.

2. We are created to be good, to be virtuous, to be the-best-version-of-ourselves. Happiness comes from living a virtuous life.

While we may think we are giving our children “opportunities we never had,” we may also be depriving them of experiences to persevere, to build the habits of fortitude, honesty, and most importantly courage—those things that will make them truly happy.

So what’s a caring parent to do?

Try to remember these four things:

  1. Your child’s failures are not your failures (you are not getting a C in Algebra!).
  2. Sooner or later, your child will fail and you won’t be there—then what?
  3. If you continually blame others in authority for your child’s failures, they will learn to eventually blame you for theirs.
  4. Courage is the ability to suffer for the good—a little suffering now will help make your child much more courageous later.

Remember, great parents know that they occasionally have to say no so that they can say yes.

Finally, I am not suggesting you go out of your way to make your child fail. Furthermore, being there for them is critical so you can help guide them as to how the situation, if handled correctly, can help them grow.

I can remember a time when I was the head of a school and was asked to be a judge of student speakers who were vying for a chance to give a speech at a big annual event at the school. One of my daughters was a finalist and, of course, it came down to her and another young lady. The two other judges and I met privately and went over the merits of each contestant. I could tell it was tough on the other judges to be totally honest given the situation, so I finally spoke up and said, “Look, I’ll make this easy. The other young lady was just a little better than my daughter.” After the announcement was made as to the winner, my daughter eventually made her way into my office. As she began to cry and remind me that she would be the first of her siblings not to be picked at this annual event, I reminded her that, first of all, I loved her and that I was very proud of her. I then tried my best to communicate to her that not everything turns out the way we hope and that dealing with disappointment is an incredible lesson to learn. I also had to tell her that my vote was the deciding vote and that I had to do the honorable thing and vote for who I thought had done the best. We laugh at that story today. My daughter is twenty now, an incredibly hard worker, and she takes on challenges and setbacks with great determination—and was picked to sing at Carnegie Hall last year!

So, land the helicopter and try to simply walk with your child for a while. Remember, great parents know that they occasionally have to say no to the tears of the moment so that they can say yes to the laughter of a lifetime.

Related Posts