Helicopter parents should let kids soar: Mom's To-Do List

August 3, 2006 | By Lainie Keslin Ettinger

Mom’s To-Do List

  • Rewrite personal essay, “My Summer Rebuilding New Orleans,” for Emily’s Harvard application.
  • Call Sam’s roommate’s parents to discuss awkward spat between the boys.
  • Pick up Emily from SAT-prep camp.
  • E-mail Sam with approved course selections. (Dad says no more art history!)
  • Call NYU registrar and find out why they aren’t sending us Sam’s report cards.
  • Retrofit nanny-cam to install in Emily’s dorm room next fall.

Times have changed.

Now entering college and the work force, the “Millennial Generation” or “Echo Boom” —born between 1982 and 2002 —is the most sheltered generation in history, according to Neil Howe and William Strauss in their book “Millennials Go to College.”

The Millennials entered the world as the first minivans rolled off assembly lines and “Baby on Board” placards popped up in car windows. While the childproofing industry was invented for these kids, they haven’t been protected from intense academic and extracurricular demands.

Meanwhile, their folks —dubbed “helicopter parents” for their tendency to hover —have overseen every aspect of their lives, from scheduling appropriate play dates to calling college professors to protest poor grades.

Elizabeth Freeman, associate professor of English at the University of California at Davis, sees the consequences firsthand.

“Parents of this generation were too terrified and/or controlling to let their kids make mistakes. So the kids don’t know how to do enough for themselves, don’t know what they want out of life or how to get it,” she says. “In some ways, this terror is related to real things: From preschool to college, the pressure to ‘get in’ has increased, and tuition has skyrocketed. The stakes are much higher for this generation, in many ways, and I feel for my students.

“But,” Freeman adds, “kids who have never been hurt, or tried hard and done only OK, or failed . . . are themselves too terrified to take any risks.”

So what’s the real problem with parents being overly involved in their kids’ lives? Surely it’s better than the ultra-hands-off, latchkey upbringing of Generation X, right? Well, yes and no.

Kids need to be able to develop confidence in their own decision-making ability. They need to learn how to manage their time without the assistance of Mom’s meticulous scheduling system inspired by Real Simple magazine. They need to be able to resolve conflicts with roommates, professors and employers without being rescued by their parents. And they need to start learning these skills long before they get to college.

Parents of younger Millennials, take heed. Here are some ways to give your children more independence before they leave the nest.

Let them do their own work

Some parents—identified not just as helicopters but as “Black Hawks” by college admissions counselors—intervene to the point of writing their children’s college application essays. (In case you’re wondering, this is generally frowned upon.)

Parents can avoid this fate by letting their children do their own homework. It sounds obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to resist helping a bit too much.

The same goes for housework. Asha Dornfest of Northeast Portland is the editor of Parent Hacks, a Web site where readers share parenting tips. When she posed the question of how to start giving kids more independence, readers responded independence begins with more responsibility. Dornfest agrees.

“My kids are still young —almost 7 and 3 —but even now I try to give them small jobs to do around the house,” she says. “I find that, in addition to learning about responsibility and teamwork, they gain such pride in their accomplishments, even while they’re grumbling about the work.”

Keep danger in perspective

Bad reputation aside, most helicopter parents don’t hover just to push their kids on the path from soccer to Stanford. Safety concerns, from fear of child abductors to the Columbine shootings, have spawned a heightened protectiveness.

However, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime rates have declined since 1994, reaching the lowest level recorded in more than 30 years. School violence is at its lowest level in a decade.

Kris R. Henning, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University, says, “Part of what drives parents to be so protective and over-involved in their children’s lives today is the belief that dangerous predators lurk around every corner.

“In reality, however, kids are probably safer now than their parents were when they were children.”

Writer Ariel Gore, editor of the alternative zine Hip Mama, was very deliberate about parceling out increasing freedoms as her daughter matured.

“I was in many ways a helicopter parent throughout my daughter’s elementary school years,” Gore says. “We lived in big cities, and I have no regrets about being protective.

“When Maia started middle school, I started allowing some more freedoms. She could walk a couple of blocks to school, for example. This was a freedom I was given as a kindergartner; Maia had to wait until sixth grade.”

Let them go to camp

Sleepover camps, and even day camps, give kids the chance to form friendships, negotiate conflicts and develop their own interests —without the helpful guidance of Mom and Dad.

“It was a three-day overnight camp —sort of a ‘Camp 101’ experience,” Portland mom Lisa Hill says of Camp Westwind’s “first-timers” camp at the Oregon coast, where her daughter went this summer.

“They slept in cabins, ate together and took care of their own belongings. She was just 6, so it was very scary for me to let her go,” Hill said. “But she gained an enormous amount of self-confidence, and despite being covered with mosquito bites —she thought the bug spray was to spray on the bugs! —she loved it.”

Let them fly a little

“As I spend time with my kids, I’m always looking for opportunities where they can learn about the world while I still have them, rather than doing everything for them,” says Linda Hefferman of Beaverton, who has two sons. “And Portland is a great city for teaching independence, too, since it’s relatively small and safe, and has great public transportation.”

Hefferman takes her 9- and 13-year-old sons all over the city at different times of the day and evening. When they walk down the street, she talks to them about paying attention to what’s happening behind and in front of them.

Hefferman now lets her older son spend time alone or with a friend downtown with a cell phone and a map. She picks them up at a different place than where she dropped them off, encouraging them to find their own way a bit.

Gore saw high school as the time to start letting her daughter try her wings.

“From my point of view, she had four years to get herself from ‘has never ridden a city bus alone’ to ‘college-ready,’ “Gore says. “And it turns out that four years is plenty of time.

“She’s 16 years old, and she just flew to New York by herself, got a cab to her pre-college program and checked herself into the dorm. I made a conscious decision not to take her there and check her in, but it is still a semisupervised situation.

“We’ll see how she does,” Gore says.