My wife and I are recovering helicopter parents.
Helicopter parenting is a form of over involvement in a child’s life, taking away the child’s ability to learn coping skills and healthy independence. It is linked to higher anxiety, higher depression, higher substance abuse, and lower coping abilities in the child’s later life. 1 2
Being a parent, and well, living life, is a balance. I want to give my kids enough space to develop skills, grit, and independence. Conversely, I desperately want my kids to know that I will always be there for them. Understanding that I will be an imperfect parent, I prefer to err on the side of being over involved.
Then, my wife and I realized my three-and-a-half-year-old needed help with everything. And my one-and-a-half-year-old was becoming more independent because we were too busy helping his brother! For example, we did not give our oldest the space to learn to put his own clothes on.
I noticed my thoughts when I feel that urge to step in to help my son. First, I do not believe he can do the task at hand. Second, I see him struggling and feel a desperate pull to swoop in and save the day. It’s so uncomfortable to watch your child struggle! Third, I want him to know he can count on me being there to help.
I felt that pull to save the day in an unlikely place. My family recently purchased a yearly pass to the Phoenix Zoo (highly recommend!) and have enjoyed watching all the animals. The other day, we excitedly watched the orangutans play. Their enclosure is surrounded by a net. A teenager of the group, Rayma, climbed up the net and used a long palm leaf to whack a fruit tree just outside the enclosure.
My wife and I felt our inner helicopter parent urge get activated. Our orangutan friend, Rayma, is not our child, but we were worried she was not being fed enough or needed our help in getting the fruit. We reminded ourselves the animals are taken care of and get enough to eat and that Rayma was going to be alright.
And then, Rayma was successful in getting one of the fruits to fall from the tree! The fruit fell a few feet outside of her reach. I told my wife I wanted to jump the fence, grab the fruit, and toss it into the enclosure. I did not believe Rayma could get the fruit. We watched Rayma struggle as she clumsily used the palm leaf to try to pull in the fruit. We were disappointed as she accidentaly pushed it away. She changed strategies, persevered and eventually drew in her yummy reward!
Corny as it sounds, seeing Rayma struggle and then succeed powerfully taught me that my instinct to helicopter and hover over my children is not helpful. Rayma needed space to struggle and succeed. If an orangutan can succeed in getting fruit on her own, my child can put on his clothes, learn to experience struggle, and build his confidence in overcoming.
I know I’ll never achieve the balance between giving space and being fully present perfectly, but I am encouraged to learn that it’s okay to struggle and even fail sometimes. When I see my kids struggle, I know my instinct is to help and let them know that I am there as needed. This builds a secure attachment base for them. They can explore and venture out into the world but also know I’m here to support and encourage them. I am learning that it is just as valuable for my kids to learn that they are there for themselves and build confidence in their own abilities. Like Rayma, they will struggle and push their fruit away, but then learn to overcome and succeed which is ultimately going to result in them feeling solid and secure in themselves. What more could a parent want?