A friend’s blog entry recently included the expression "helicopter parenting." The Cap’n and I took a wager about what this expression meant, then Googled it. Very interesting results.
It seems that over-protective parenting (the short definition) has given rise to a number of expressions, many of them coined by education professionals who find themselves the victims of parental "involvement" in their students’ education. A "helicopter parent" goes beyond being concerned about his or her children’s development and education and rushes "to prevent any harm or failure from befalling them and will not let them learn from their own mistakes, sometimes even contrary to the children’s wishes." This apparently includes calling college professors to complain about their child’s grade in class, and even employers to try to negotiate their children’s salaries. Remember the Israeli soldier who got 21 days in the clink, and his mother’s claim to have called and complained to his commanders? Painful as it is, this helps explain the section below Wikipedia’s definition, "See also: Jewish mother stereotype." Incidentally, some parents’ behavior even goes beyond the "helicopter parenting" definition of being a nudge and a pest, and enters the unethical zone of writing their children’s college application essays for them. This type of parent is dubbed a "Black Hawk parent" (after the military aircraft).
Other expressions for this style of overbearing parenting include "lawnmower parenting" (to describe parents who attempt to smooth any obstacles that their child might encounter and—heaven forbid—actually learn from) and similarly, in Scandinavia, "curling parents" (same idea: sweepers of obstacles from their children’s path) defined here and shown in action here. (I think the fact that such a phenomenon exists outside the United States is both discouraging and validating.)
After reading this stuff, I’m left scratching my head. I’m not a fabulous parent, but I do think kids often learn much more from making their own mistakes than from being told what to do all the time. Doesn’t insinuating one’s parental self into a child’s life to this extent leave the child unskilled and inadequately prepared for life? Doesn’t it rob a child of any feeling of personal achievement if the parent can take credit for any and all outcomes of the child’s experiences? What ever happened to "natural consequences" where a child actually gets to see what results from his or her own actions? If a parent tries to justify over-involvement in a child’s college career as "protecting one’s investment," shouldn’t one perhaps recall that academic subjects and grades are only a part of what the child learns in college? And if the parent had his or her own turn learning to be a responsible adult, when does the child get that same turn? To deny the (adult) child the opportunity to have these experiences is to deny him or her the chance to learn responsibility, organization, motivation, confidence, and self-reliance.
I think all this points to the fact that it’s not only important for a parent to know when it’s important to teach a child; it’s just as important to know when to let others (other adults, children, or experience) teach that same child. The image of a child as an amoeba swimming in a parental pond cannot apply to a child’s entire life; at some point the child must crawl out of that parental ooze, dry off, and strike out on its own. As a child reaches adulthood, it’s time for that child to enter the take-charge, independent phase of life (that will last the rest of his or her life). At the same time, the parent must enter the hands-off, supporting-without-interfering stage.