You hover over his left shoulder as he does his maths homework, and if he seems to be struggling with a problem, you take over and solve it for him. You nudge him along with “suggestions” as he works on a Sudoku puzzle. And what’s that droning sound? Oh, it’s you again, on the phone to his Science teacher, complaining that she gave him just an A on his project, whereas you really believe he deserved an A+. (After all, you did it for him).
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You are a certified expert in what the media calls “helicopter parenting” – that is, parenting by hovering, whirring and casting a protective shadow over every aspect of your child’s life – from what she eats, to the friends she has, the hobby class she goes to and the outfit she’ll wear to a party.
Mothering or smothering?
When it comes to helicopter parenting, Indians can teach the world a thing or two. They have been there, done that, have been doing it for an eternity, and have got it down to an art form. It begins at birth, of course, with what psychologist Sudhir Kakar has called “relentless physical ministrations”. In ‘The Indian Psyche’, Kakar writes: “From the moment of birth, the Indian infant is greeted and surrounded by....relentless physical ministrations ... An Indian mother is inclined towards a total indulgence of her infant’s wants and demands whether these relate to feeding, cleaning, sleeping or being kept company. Moreover, she tends to extend this sort of mothering to well beyond the time when the infant is ready for independent functioning in many areas. Thus, feeding at all times of night and day and ‘on demand’.”
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Though the micro-managing mom is a more common phenomenon, fathers are not blameless, either. If you’re the one tying your six-year-old’s shoe-laces and later untying them for him – although, at school, he has shown he can manage it very well himself; if you’re the one checking and re-checking your 10-year-old’s school-bag to see that she has packed all her books for the day; if you’re the one stepping into every small spat that your child has with a friend instead of letting the kids resolve it on their own; if you’re the one going nuts over every unseen bogeyman that you need to protect your little treasure from – then you are guilty as charged: “The Parent from Heli”, as this kind of care-giver has come to be called.
Helicopter parenting can soar to dizzying, even unethical heights. We all know of parents who will not hesitate to shove in an oar or two just to ensure their child does not lose out in even a friendly game or contest. I once heard about a mother who, looking on while her son and his friend played a game of carrom, and seeing that the other kid looked headed to win the game and that her son was beginning to look glum about it, “accidentally” tipped the board so that the pieces fell into disarray and the game had to be abandoned. She had protected her son’s ego – or, that’s the way she saw it.
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None of this stops with childhood, of course. Nor does it seem to matter much to helicopter parents that their child, even in her last year of school, still cannot – or will not – make her own breakfast or sew on a button. As long as she tops the Board exam.
And even after that milestone has been attained, the helicopter parent does not slow down. She will choose the stream her child will enter in college, shortlist the colleges worth applying to, fill up application forms and, if possible, not just sit in on the selection interview but also respond on behalf of her child. And, as the child goes through the years of college, and later applies for a job, and eventually arrives at the point where he has to “settle down”, the helicopter parent remains a perennial presence, researching and writing up projects, filling up forms, opening a bank account, researching job opportunities online, writing up the CV, coaching (and even rehearsing) the job interview with her son... and, of course, when she decides the time is right, selecting a bride for him. If, by chance, her son needs to re-locate to another city or state or country for a job, the helicopter parent will stay in touch via calls, texts, emails, Facebook, not once, but several times a day. And, by now, the child has grown so dependent on things being done for him by one or both parents that, more likely than not, he will come to expect the oversight and the problem-solving to continue, and will unquestioningly go on living a life that is forever being scripted for him by mom and /or dad.
Why do you do this?
Intensive parenting has been showing a steady uptrend in the modern urban community in particular. There are several reasons, including these:
» Uncertainty and angst. With information about what constitutes “effective parenting” exploding into our psyches from cyberspace and other media, the rules for setting your child on the path to lifelong success no longer seem clear-cut. What do you need to do? What should you provide your child with? With no precise answers, you start providing everything you believe you should – including too much help. Parents today fear that opportunities for their children are shrinking while the competition is getting increasingly vicious, and they see a degree from a top-tier university as one of the few weapons that will give their kids an edge in the battle for the survival of the fittest.
» The passing of a more carefree era. We are no longer living in the kind of carefree times that the last generation grew up in, the generation where children could walk or cycle to school without their parents getting paranoid about their safety, the generation in which children went out to play in the evening and stayed out till the street lights came on and all of them went back home to do their homework – on their own. With the upping of the ante on violence and child abuse, today’s parents feel their children are safer at home with their Net surfing and their mobile apps and games, rather than outdoors in the great unknown. When parents speak to other parents, most of the talk centres around their worries about their children. There’s almost the feeling that, if you’re not worrying, there must be something wrong with you. Worrying can often seem like love.
» The pressure to be better. Very often, without actually being conscious of it, micro-managing parents are using their kids to compensate for, and to correct, things they feel were wrong with their own upbringing. “Parenting” today has become a virtual job description, and to that extent it trails in its own brand of competitiveness. A parent who observes other mothers and fathers “fighting” to optimize their children’s opportunities, can feel pressure to do the same to level the playing field.
How kids suffer
Helicopter parenting comes from a place of good intentions. The problem is that “do everything” parents love their children anxiously, and in doing so, they instil their own anxiety into their children. Imperceptibly at first, but steadily, their children begin to mirror their parents’ fear of failure and, often, fear of experimenting with anything new, fear of anything that hints of even the faintest uncertainty.
From such anxiety to low self-confidence is a natural step of progression. Never having had a chance to learn self-reliance, children of helicopter parents often don’t believe they can produce a desired outcome without their parents’ involvement. What their parents have done is to instil a “can’t do” rather than a “can do” reaction to even the simplest of life’s challenges. Children who have everything done for them lose the chance to develop valuable coping skills, to learn to bounce back from failure.
Studies in this area bear out the differences between children who have experienced intensive parenting and children whose parents encouraged them to engage with the world on their own in an age-appropriate manner. One of the most recent studies coming out from Florida State University reveals that young adults who had enjoyed “higher levels of autonomy from their parents” during their growing-up years showed “greater life satisfaction, better physical health, and more confidence in their own self-efficacy” during their years at college. At the other extreme, children who grew up with ‘over-involved parents’ were more likely to report “low levels of life satisfaction and self-efficacy, as well as higher levels of anxiety and depression”. Physical health was also generally worse for this latter group, according to the study.
Another finding, from long-term research at Brigham Young University, is that, regardless of the warmth and support that over-controlling parents may have given their children, it did not nullify the negative effects of intensive parenting. “"Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative,” the study authors said.
The evidence is growing that helicopter parenting comes at a high cost, with children of such parents getting stuck, more often than not, in a state of what has been called “permanent adultescence”, with poor skills for adulthood.
Stop – in the name of love
Landing their ‘copter and handing in their pilot’s license does not come easily to helicopter parents. But, if you’ve decided that it’s important for you to stop hovering and to give your child wings, here are some ways forward:
Ask yourself some hard questions. ‘Can I always be around for my child?’ ‘Do I want my child to grow into a responsible, mature adult who knows how to solve his or her own problems and take decisions?’ ‘Do I want to advocate self-reliance or dependency?’
‘Is a degree from a top-drawer University and a job in a blue-chip company the ultimate achievements that I seek for my child? Is that how low my expectations for my child are? What about self-esteem and resilience? What about the ability to cut it in real life?’
Encourage your child to build self-help skills, always making sure they are developmentally appropriate. Thus, during the toddler period (2-3 years), he should be able to (among other things):
Use a spoon; drink from a cup
Help put his toys away
Brush his teeth with some help from you
Beyond the toddler years, i.e., between the ages of 3 and 5, she should be able to:
Wash her own hands
Dress and undress herself, with some help from you
Pack her own school-bag
Use a pair of safety scissors
Help in simple household chores
And so on, through the years of middle childhood and the teenage period. By the time your child is in that final year of school, he should be habituated in the use of home appliances like a toaster juicer, microwave and electric iron; should be making his own bed; should be able to do basic cooking such as making an omelette and cooking rice. He should also be setting the alarm so that he wakes up on his own to go to college, and should be able to put together a simple breakfast for himself –instead of depending on a parent to wake up early in order to wake him up, run his bath and make his breakfast.
Confidence builds on competencies, and skill-building is one of the most enduring gifts you can give your child.
Don’t tie him to your saree pallav. When your child is small, allow him freedom to explore, climb, jump, swing and run in a safe environment. Find parks and other places that provide security from traffic and other dangers, while still offering a fun atmosphere. Check outdoor playground equipment, making sure there are no loose parts or sharp edges.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Every fall, skinned knee or minor disappointment such as winning the second prize instead of the first in a fancy-dress competition is not worth fretting over. Instead of running back home from his school to get a forgotten text-book, to avoid your son getting punished, understand that punishment teaches a child about consequences, and that he will henceforth take care to pack his school-bag more carefully. Every time you begin to palpitate over something that seems to loom like a disaster, ask yourself: ‘What I perceive as a threat, is it actually a life lesson for my kid?’
Don’t solve problems for your child; instead, help her to problem-solve. Instead of rushing in to ‘fix’ a problem every time, guide your child to think through the problem to find her own solution. Help her by brain-storming problems, using open-ended questions such as. “What do you think would happen if you tried that?” Offer support, offer empathy (‘Hey, that looks tricky’) .
While a little frustration is good motivation for your child, too much can lead to tantrums, aggression, or feeling defeated and giving up. Before frustration builds up to troublesome levels. step in to suggest how she can approach the problem from a different perspective, or break it down into smaller chunks.
Don’t ‘prevent’, instead ‘prepare’. A typical example: Most parents tell their children they should never talk to strangers. Instead, what parents should be inculcating in their children are the do’s and don’ts of interacting safely with strangers, and how to tell bad strangers from the good ones,
So, too, with being safe around a body of water. Instead of warning your child never to go even into a kiddie pool, teach your child to swim, and always ensure that you or another responsible adult is present when she is in or around any body of water.
Get a life of your own, and let your child see that you have one. There are parents who won’t accept, say, an invitation to dinner because, “You know, Raj is appearing for his Board exams this year”. What,what,what!! Will foregoing that dinner help Raj get 99 per cent instead of 98? Enjoy your life and other relationships. It’s good for your child to see that you have your own life. You’re role-modelling independent living skills for him.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)