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The Problem With "Helicoptering"

College Success Bulletin

[Note – this article expands on a previous post, Advice to “Helicopter” Parents]

Two or three years ago, I was sitting in my office with client, owner of a local advertising agency.  He had arrived a few minutes late.

How ya doin’, Paul, I asked.

Aren’t you going to ask me why I was late?  Paul inquired.

Um, OK – how come? I replied, noticing his smile.

I was interviewing someone for a job as a graphic designer, he said.

OK… I said.

…Don’t you want to know how the interview went?  Paul asked, leaning forward, a half-smirk plastered on his mug.

I wasn’t going to ask, but, yes, tell me, I sighed.

For the applicant…or for his mother?  Paul said.

Are you f-ing kidding me?  His mommy showed up to the interview!?  I couldn’t believe it.

Yes, but you wanna know the sad thing?  This isn’t the first time this has happened, he said, shaking his head.

I have since heard loads of similar stories – parents accompanying (not dropping off!) their kids on job interviews, asking questions of the interviewer, calling after to follow up and so on.

You may be shaking your head, rolling your eyes, saying God, that’s ridiculous – who would ever do that?

My answer:

YOU.  You’re already doing it.  At least a little bit.

How do I know?

Because we ALL do, to some degree or another.

Pearl and I have four kids, two boys and two girls, grades 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th.

Even if we wanted to, we could not possibly do their homework for each of them. Between soccer, basketball and lacrosse games and practices, rehearsals and plays, dance, gymnastics and running our business, there’s barely time in the day.

But we feel responsible when one of them under-performs.  OK, Pearl feels guilty.  I don’t really (but of course I’m supportive of her!)

Pearl feels guilty because she can’t spend time with them on homework the way she thinks other parents do, or that we haven’t invested in tutors and specialists like many of our family and friends.

With so many kids, we’ve actually fallen into a near ritualistic pattern.  Here’s how it goes:

First, Pearl logs onto the parent “Portal” at some ungodly hour like 5:09 am (online access to grades is a dangerous addiction) and scowls, proclaiming in a voice that carries to the next block, [Child] has a ‘D’ in math!  A ‘C’ in Art!!!

Next, she fumes about our kid not (expletive deleted) trying, not (same expletive deleted) going to extra help, that we need to hire a (same expletive deleted again) tutor but they’re so (louder, same expletive deleted) expensive, some day this will catch up to him (“Child is never one of the girls), and other similar comments.

By this time, I’m fully awake, cringing under the covers.

Later, [Child] is “summoned” before her. In this part of our ritual, Pearl is sole judge, jury and executioner.  (I’m the bailiff or some supporting role – think “Bull” on Night Court – because I’m told to produce [Child]).

Next, [Child] is read the riot act, ripped a new orifice and asked what the hell he was thinking.

I’m prompted to offer my two cents, which is always wise, solemn,  and in complete agreement (do you think I’m stupid?).  Then we ask for an explanation.

[Child]’s response is some version of a blank, downward stare. Perhaps a few mumbled – yet somehow unsatisfactory – apologetic words.

Then we take away X Box, or the laptop, or phone, all three or some combination thereof.

After, there’s a temporary improvement in behavior, such as the bed being made without asking (max: three consecutive days), getting up for school by using an alarm (not Mommy or Daddy), visible evidence of studying (i.e. open books strewn on the desk).

How are we going to motivate this kid? Pearl wonders.

But that is the wrong question.  I don’t think you CAN motivate a kid.

Punishing him for his transgressions doesn’t change his behavior beyond those three days.

But don’t get me wrong – I’m quick to take away his stuff.

But when I step back and look at the results,  I think that all punishing does is make me feel vaguely satisfied, as though there’s justice in our house.  And I feel good that I’m doing something, instead of, in effect, rewarding bad behavior by doing nothing.

And then  I tell myself that it’s good for our other kids to see that we won’t condone this behavior.

(We also reward for good behavior, like buying little treats like ice cream and other small acknowledgements of a job well done.)

But I don’t think that he – or most kids – are truly motivated by these gimmicks, whether carrot or stick.

Instead, I feel like the desire to achieve has to come from within, tied to the joy and satisfaction of mastering difficult tasks. (Read the book Drive by Dan Pink for a great discussion of this topic.)

In other words, the kid has got to be self-motivated.  Any reward or punishment we dole out has, at best, a temporary effect.

So I’ll tell Pearl, You – nor I – can’t want it more than he does.

To her credit, instead of throwing something at me, she usually agrees.

But I understand our  -and most parents’ – impulse to want to do stuff for our kids.

We birthed them, diapered them, fed them, stayed up at night with them and the whole drill.

It makes sense that we’d want to be there for every step thereafter.  I get that.

But if you look at it rationally, our job as parents is to prepare our kids to be independent, successful members of society.

There’s no two ways about it – it’s a disservice to solve their problems for them.  To be that Helicopter Parent.

This behavior retards their growth in the long run, and stunts it in the short term. (Professors usually don’t take kindly parental intervention. They’re immune to a lot of the crap parents heaped on teachers and school principals.  They’re tenured!)

What will happen when she’s at college, or at work, and faces a problem that you’re not around to take care of?

Put it another way:  you’re an employer. Ask:  who will be better at solving problems, a kid who’s always had Mommy or Daddy fix things, or someone who’s failed, picked herself up, dusted herself off, and tried it all over again?

Failing is part of learning.  You don’t screw up, you don’t succeed.

You don’t succeed, you don’t feel good about yourself.

Yes, it’s OK to help your kid out.  This means scheduling and helping organize things for them, and other low level tasks.  It can also mean giving them your opinion about how they handled things, even if your opinions are chock full of salty language and delivered at a decibel level that could be heard over a jet engine.

But it does not mean doing their homework.  Or writing essays or putting resumes together, even if you know you’ll do a better job.  (Proofreading and editing are fine, of course – but you know when you cross the line!)

Let your kids be confused, mess up, and figure things out on their own.

Fight your helicopter impulse.

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