I was raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the heyday of laissez-faire parenting. Even though our family had a traditional setup—my dad worked as a manager for J.C. Penney, while my mom stayed home to raise me and my two sisters—that doesn’t mean Mom hovered over us. Quite the opposite: Every morning during our summer break from school, I would huff down my Boo Berry or Count Chocula cereal, and then race out the door without a backward glance. I’d disappear for hours, roaming the neighborhood and returning only when I got hungry.
“Bye,” my mom would say absently, her eyes on an Erica Jong novel. She knew that I was playing somewhere in our Pittsburgh subdivision, but never asked specifically what I did. Usually I gathered with a pack of semi-feral ‘70s kids in a vacant lot at the end of our street. We’d throw rocks, play freeze tag and cops and robbers, or build forts with some old lumber that was lying around. It was the scraggly ‘70s version of a play space, and my idea of paradise.
Many parents who are my age share similar memories. When I first met my husband, I told him about my childhood happily spent in vacant lots. He suddenly sat up straight. “That’s what I did, too!” he said excitedly. “You could just go all day.” He fondly recalled a carefree day of repeatedly leaping off a teetering pile of old tires. “Good times,” he said, with a faraway smile.
Cut to a few days ago, when our 9-year-old daughter, Sylvie, asked us if she could walk to school by herself.
“No,” we both said in unison. Her school is exactly three blocks away from our Brooklyn apartment, but we didn’t even need to confer.
“But Sean’s parents let him walk to school alone,” she protested.
“Right, and he’s the only kid we know who does,” I said.
But her disappointed face bothered me. That night, after we put her to bed, I faced Tom.
“Are we helicopter parents?” I asked him.
He thought for a long minute. “I’m not sure,” he said finally.
Helicopter parents—the term for overprotective, overly involved moms and dads who are ready at all times to swoop in with guidance, problem-solving, and battle-fighting—was first used in the 1969 book Parents & Teenagers by Dr. Haim Ginott, when some of the teens interviewed in the book said that their folks hovered over them like a helicopter.
They do their child’s homework. They stay put at drop-off birthday parties. They immediately step in if their child has a skirmish with another kid. They encase their children in protective head-to-toe padding for a skateboarding trip to the park.
Tom and I do none of those things. Nor do I clean up after our daughter, another characteristic of helicopter parents. I make sure she does her chores, after reading studies that doing chores builds character and life skills that can last for decades.
But after that incident with Sylvie, I realized that Tom and I have pretty much nailed the “overprotective” part of heli-parenting. Our child has almost never been out of sight of at least one adult—a teacher, a coach, or, most frequently, her parents’ hawk-like gaze. We walk her to school. We accompany her to play dates and after-school classes. We stand on the margins of the playground while she plays.
In other words, we have crossed from “protective” to “overprotective.” (And, perhaps just a touch paranoid.) Thanks to a shrill 24-hour news cycle and the rise of the internet, the world certainly feels more dangerous, even if evidence suggests that this actually isn’t true (and, in fact, our hometown of New York City is one of the safest cities on the planet).
Childhood norms have changed considerably in one generation—those from a century ago unrecognizable to us now. In Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, historian Elliot West describes the experience of 9-year-old Marvin Powe, who grew up in 19th-century New Mexico. Powe’s dad tells him to find and return some runaway horses that have bolted from the family ranch. They had wandered miles away, so the boy spent a week living off the land and camping with cowboys before locating the horses. He heads home just as Dad reckons he should probably venture out and look for his son.
OK, that’s maybe an extreme version of so-called “free-range parenting.” But research shows that being overprotective can have pretty serious consequences. The phenomenon of overbearing parents is fairly new in our culture, so there are only a handful of studies that have emerged examining the long-term effects of parental hovering—but what researchers are finding is not good. A 2013 University of Arizona study pretty much spells it out with the title: “Overparenting is Associated with Child Problems and a Critical Family Environment.”
The researchers found that anxiety-driven parenting is linked with a boatload of traits that I absolutely, positively do not want for my kid, including depression, anxiety, and lower life satisfaction and self-acceptance. Oh, and entitlement. And narcissism.
Sara B. Moore, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at Salem State University, says that when parents are constantly hovering and doing things for their offspring, “their kids don’t develop the feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem that come with the feeling of successfully navigating something.”
Last summer, she continues, she allowed her 7-year-old daughter to ride her bike a few blocks ahead of her and her husband on their way to volunteer at their local community garden.
“We live in Salem, Massachusetts, which is a small, walkable city, and my daughter is good about street safety,” says Dr. Moore. “But I remember saying to my husband, ‘I know she’s ready for this, but I feel a little anxious.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s the whole point.'” Parents have to fight that instinctual fear a little bit, she says, “while acknowledging that it’s a little anxiety-provoking to have your kid out of your sight in a world of the 24-7 media cycle, where you’re always hearing about kidnappings—even though we know that the world is a safer place now in many ways, especially when it comes to abductions, compared to 20, 30 years ago.”
I told Dr. Moore that I was haunted by my daughter’s dejected expression when we forbid her to walk to school by herself. “Well, when she does, she’s probably going to be super-excited that she did something for herself,” Dr. Moore points out. “It’s the feeling not just that she conquered the skill of walking to school safely and knowing where she’s going, but the feeling that even if you’re nervous about something, you can ask questions, you can try it—and you can master something. That’s invaluable when it comes to child development. And it’s something that’s missing from our kids’ experience whenever we do so much for them.”
After we chatted, it occurred to me that another reason behind my hovering is my reluctance to face that my daughter is getting older. It’s the same reason I keep her old My Little Pony figurines around our bathtub when she hasn’t played with them in a long while.
That night, I faced Tom once again, and told him about my conversation with Dr. Moore.
“It’s time,” I said.
The next morning, we decided to send Sylvie off to school by herself. When I told her the news, she rushed around our apartment, excitedly getting ready.
Then I waved goodbye with a little lump in my throat as she struck out on her own. I realized it was time to embrace some new adventures—for my daughter, and for me, too. It’s not exactly sending her off on the open plains to round up runaway horses, but it’s a good first step.