When I was a kid, I roamed around our neighborhood like a wild animal. I rollerbladed down steep hills. I played tackle football. I ran around barefoot. And when it was time to come in, my mom whistled so loudly that it echoed off the houses. My parents were totally cool with us kids playing freely outside, sometimes going a mile away from the house. My experience wasn’t a unique one. That was just what kids did back then. My wife’s mom had the same whistle system, and all my friends’ parents let us run around their neighborhoods just like my mom allowed us to do. But here’s the thing. Now that I’m a dad, I see things completely differently. When my parents took me to the playground as a kid, they gave me free reign to run around and play. When I take my kids to the playground, I see danger all around. I think of germs, superheated slides, eight-foot drop-offs, and a whole host of other risks. But I can’t be a helicopter parent, right? I mean, helicopter parents are not only socially uncool; they’re crazy! They go on their kids’ job interviews and solve way too many of their kids’ problems for them. I desperately don’t want to be a helicopter parent.
And yet, if I’m completely honest with myself, I can feel that overprotective helicopter parent hovering inside of me. Sure, it might be closeted, but I know it’s there. And I know I’m not alone.
The trend towards overprotectiveness
Despite the fact that my parents and most of my friends’ parents raised us “free-range” style, the newest generation of parents – my own generation – leans much more toward the protective end of the spectrum, to the point of being overprotective. There’s plenty of evidence to document this generational trend. According to a survey, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone in the 1970s while just nine percent did so in the 1990s. But what is causing this trend in the first place? Why are parents becoming more protective over time?
Information overload and fear
As time has passed, parents have become exposed to more and more information via our ever-improving technology (e.g., newspapers to smartphones). While much of this information exposure is good, like being able to quickly find ways to deal with a discipline issue, some of this information exposure is not helpful. We’re constantly bombarded with stories of freak accidents and horrific tragedies that befall an unfortunate few. When I go to CNN’s homepage, for example, I see the following headline on their front page: “Video shows moment boy falls off water slide.” Constant exposure to these kinds of terrifying stories causes many of us parents to pull our children closer to us. When we learn of unimaginable kidnappings, like Elizabeth Smart, how can we not respond by restricting their ability to roam around the neighborhood?
When are we protecting versus overprotecting?
There is a downside to giving in to our natural inclinations to protect our children when we hear these dreadful stories and statistics. Research shows that kids with overprotective parents have lower levels of life satisfaction, physical health, and self-efficacy and higher levels of anxiety and depression. Other research suggests that the bad caused by our helicopter parenting ways are not offset our otherwise supportive and warm tendencies. The research is clear: if we overprotect our children early in life, we make their lives worse later on. How can we know when we’re overprotecting versus simply being prudent about protecting our kids? Through research and listening to your gut. We can educate ourselves about the actual risks involved with whatever it is our children are doing, and we make an informed decision based on understanding those risks. We board airplanes because we know the risks of crashing are very small. Likewise, you may decide that your child should get a zero for forgetting his homework at home instead of trying to protect him from the consequence. The risk that he won’t go to college as a result of this, for example, is bearable.
Shooting down the helicopters fueled by irrational fear
I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that there is no win-win. If I overprotect my children now, I end up causing issues for them later in life. If I don’t shield them from risks, they could end up getting hurt. What I’ve learned is that I have to actively shoot down those hovering helicopters inside of me. Not all of them, mind you. Just the ones that are fueled by irrational fears. I’m not going to let my son play football (based on my research of concussions), but I will let him play on the playground