Reports in the media about helicopter parents have been skyrocketing over the past decade. The consensus from college counselors and entry-level employers is that parents are going too far making sure their kids get ahead in high school, college and beyond. Instead of being helpful, parents are hovering. Rather than supporting tweens and teens, parents are swooping in and negotiating outcomes for them. But when kids don’t learn to trust their ability to navigate their own experiences, they become more helpless, which leads to shirking responsibilities and assuming mom and dad will pick up the slack on their behalf.
On the opposite end of the parenting spectrum is a type of parent who is not discussed as much in the media as the helicopter parent–the absentee parent. These parents are too busy, distracted and pre-occupied to meet the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of their children. Absentee parents may be physically present but struggle to pay enough attention to their children for many reasons, which may include job demands, marital distress, divorce, addiction, mental illness, financial problems, domestic violence or unhealed wounds from childhood. As the name implies, absentee parents may either be elsewhere permanently or frequently away from home.
Despite suggestions in the media that parents should back off, checking out is not the antidote to helicopter parenting. Kids need parents to be present, engaged and involved in their lives. In the middle of the two parenting extremes, helicopter and absentee, is the happy medium kids crave–the present, self-aware parent who possesses healthy boundaries and wants children to learn them, too. Helpful parents practice benign neglect, where they step out of the way on purpose to give a child chances to stretch and grow.
Most parents want the best for their kids and are doing as well as they can, but helpful parenting skills may require a little extra study and practice because they are not always instinctive. Let’s take a closer look at the qualities of helpful parents.
- Available to listen. Kids don’t always need parents to fix everything for them. More often, they just need to be listened to and heard. Parents are older and wiser and will usually be able to discern solutions to problems more swiftly than kids. But if parents always assert their advantage in problem solving, kids won’t get the opportunity to figure things out for themselves. The solution is to listen to kids and ask questions. Help your child discover that she has good instincts and can use your family values to deduct possible solutions to challenging situations.
- Emotionally detached. Above all, parents need to refrain from swooping in and taking over whenever a problem presents itself. The more parents intervene, the more they deprive kids of valuable learning experiences. I have just as strong a mama bear instincts as the next mom, and if I perceive that my daughter is being treated poorly, my blood pressure can surge. The instinct to protect is a natural one and must be regulated. The more often you react emotionally to information your child shares, the less likely your kids will want to share with you in the future. So get in the habit of saying things like, “I am sorry to hear that you were treated that way. How did that make you feel?” It’s helpful for kids to be able to name and own their feelings, and this can buy you a bit of time to calm down.
- Willing to discuss. Sometimes, when you are talking to your kids about challenging situations in their lives, they may ask you if you had a similar experience when you were their age. If you are the kind of parent who can come up with personal anecdotes on the fly, your kids will appreciate knowing they are not the only ones to struggle. If like me, you are not as quick to scan your memory files and come up with a relatable story, that’s okay, too. Even if you think of something two hours after the conversation is over, chime in the next time the opportunity arises. Our children need to see us as the fallible people we were and not just as the all-knowing adults we seem to have become. Let your kids connect to a younger, less savvy version of you and you’ll feel more connected.
- Prepared to help. Once you are done listening and discussing a situation with a degree of emotional detachment, it may be time to offer assistance. But if your child rebuffs your offer, try not to take it personally. The key is to communicate that your door is always open. “Just let me know if you want to talk about this more,” is a good way to let kids know that help is available if they decide they want it. Or you can simply ask, “Do you want to discuss this with anyone else or do some research on the topic?” Don’t be afraid to bring more people into the discussion. You might say, “You know who might have some insights on this topic? Dad.” Pushing for immediate solutions may make kids feel more anxious. You don’t have to have all of the answers, every time. Children need to process information in their own way and at their own pace.
- Supportive from the back seat. Kids need to learn how to advocate for themselves and parents can assist with this process without taking over. At the end of my daughter’s first year of middle school, she wanted to try out for the talent show. She had sung a song in the elementary school talent show and the experience had been empowering. So when she auditioned in middle school and didn’t make the cut, she was disappointed, but trying hard to pretend she wasn’t. I encouraged her to go speak to her choir teacher about it. “Why not ask her what you might do differently next time?” I suggested. My daughter said she would talk to her, and then dragged her feet, while continuing to feel badly. After a few days, I sent the teacher a quick email asking her to initiate a conversation, which she did. As my daughter relayed their discussion to me in the car after school, she burst into tears, finally releasing the sadness underneath the disappointment. The next year, she picked a more upbeat song, and happily made the cut.
- Conscious of boundaries. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to relinquish control when they can envision a perfect future for their kids. But their vision may interfere with their teen’s ability to imagine a life they are excited to lead. The goal of helpful parenting is healthy boundaries. You are not your child and your child is not you. If you don’t have appropriate limits as a parent, you won’t be able to model them for your child. Parents who habitually overstep teach their kids that their own opinions are not important. Cultivating solid boundaries is everything when it comes to raising kids who can think and act for themselves. Kids with poor boundaries will likely have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships in the future.
- Accessible in a crisis. If you want to be the first person your child calls in a genuine crisis, you have to earn that role by being cool, calm and considerate in the face of whatever goes down. If your kids don’t believe you can hold it together, they will look elsewhere for help. If you are not your child’s go-to person in a crisis, don’t be mad at them. Look at your parenting history, and consider what adjustments you need to make to become a caring, supportive space for your children. Make sure your children know you are not perfect, and remember they are not perfect, either. When you let your kids be imperfect, you encourage them to take risks, make mistakes, and figure things out as they mature, just like you.
Author, journalist and writing coach Christina Katz tries to be a helpful parent to the best of her ability, while making plenty of mistakes along the way.