Are you a ‘Helicopter Parent’ ?

Hi, my name is Steve Walton and I am a Recovering Helicopter Parent.

Maybe it is because I had children a bit later in life, maybe it is because I am a teacher, or maybe it is because I have seen what happens when children are not given the attention and love they need. Whatever the reason, a couple of years ago I had a moment of self realisation where I stopped and thought, “Oh no! I’m a helicopter parent.”

A helicopter parent is a parent who hovers closely over their children, always keeping them within arm’s reach, figuratively and literally. According to Viner and Zajechowski there are three primary behaviours of the helicopter parent:

1. Doing for children what they can do for themselves.
2. Doing for children what they can almost do for themselves.
3. Making parenting decisions based on your ego.

I say that I am a recovering helicopter parent because although I do exhibit some of these behaviours from time to time, I am aware that I do and then try hard not to. But occasionally I catch myself hovering above my son, thinking I am protecting him but actually am causing more harm than good.

A recent example of where I displayed points 1 and 2 above was when we went bush walking. We had a good day with a great bunch of people ranging from 4 to 40ish years old. The coastal track at Wattamolla was a beautiful track and the walk started perfectly. I was relaxed, my son was running up and down the track with the other kids exploring and having a fantastic time. But then as we moved into a clearing I noticed that we were standing at the top of a cliff and that a large portion of the track followed the cliff edge down to a beach that would be our final destination.

From the moment I saw the cliff and him running to the edge to have a look I must have unconsciously switched to helicopter auto pilot. I grabbed his hand and didn’t let go. All of the other kids were playing safely on the rocks nearby, but I was not letting go of my son’s hand. As we moved away from the cliff edge and continued on with the walk I lightened up on the high security detail I had imposed upon him and watched from a bit more of a distance.

Well I am sure that most of my readers would have grabbed a 4 year old boy’s hand as he was running towards a cliff and you may be thinking, “There is nothing wrong with that.” The problem for me was that for the rest of the day I didn’t let him out of my sight. Even with about 15 other perfectly responsible people around I watched him like a hawk. I even found myself carrying him when he could have walked like everyone else. So here I was trying to protect him but ultimately I was stopping him from having fun with the other kids, learning, exploring and growing. Yes, by carrying him I was keeping him safe from immediate (but unlikely) danger. But I was doing for him what he could have done for himself. Also, being carried was easier for him so he kept asking me to pick him up, building a reliance on me as a parent and missing out on rich childhood experiences.

An overprotective nature can actually do more harm than good.

When we finally reached the beach we encountered a small creek that we had to cross. My son could almost cross it on his own, and he wanted to try, but in order to protect him from getting wet I decided I would ‘toss’ him across the creek. Although at the time I thought it was a great plan, I quickly realised its flaws as he landed on his tail-bone and the tears began to flow.

What a disaster! My son had been on bush walks before. He had always come home excited to tell me about all the fun he had and the things he had discovered. The only difference this time was that I was there in helicopter parent mode. He was told he couldn’t do what the other kids were doing, he was carried so he wouldn’t slip and the only injury he sustained was the one I caused by trying to protect him from getting his feet wet!

As I look back on the day I realise that I am still a recovering helicopter parent. I am not fully cured yet. We still had a lot of fun but I have discovered that it was my actions that changed the outcome for my son, not his. We do a disservice to our children when we do things for them that they can do themselves or when we remove the challenge from a task that they can almost manage on their own.

As an educator, I know this. As a parent, it is slowly sinking in.
I certainly learned my lesson. My punishment was carrying a 4-year-old with a bruised tailbone 4 kilometres through the bush back to the car.

Steves Blog April 6

Now that we are at the end of Term 1, let me encourage you. Think about how you have ‘helped’ your children so far this year. I am sure, like me, you have made some mistakes but also had some great successes. Take some time over the Term break to reflect on what worked well and why.

I hope you have an enjoyable break and I look forward to the learning opportunities and challenges that will come our way next Term.