How To Avoid Being a Helicopter Parent in 3 Common Scenarios

During the past two years, keeping kids safe and in good spirits has been a top priority. But as a psychologist, I also know it’s important for them to learn how to handle everyday challenges on their own. Here's how.

school-aged girl overalls holding green pencil homework father
That one’s way too hard—I should just tell her the answer. Photo: Tim Marsella

I spent a Saturday morning chatting with a friend while our daughters ran around the local playground pretending to be firefighters. As her first-grader and my then kindergartner carried on with their game, our conversation shifted from small talk to a more pressing topic. "I'm curious what you think about a situation that just came up," my friend said.

The day before, her daughter had burst into tears after school. She'd been excluded from a game at recess because she didn't belong to the "headband club." My friend was stunned. "I can't believe they already have clubs and cliques in first grade!" she said to me. "Do you think I should call the teacher?" Then she paused. "Or should she learn to deal with this kind of thing on her own?"

Questions like these interest me not only as a friend but also as a psychologist who has taken care of children and their parents for more than 25 years. In that time, I have learned a lot about when it is reasonable—even wonderful—to provide more help than usual and when that might be the wrong move. Considering what my friend was sharing, I thought that it made sense for her to let the situation at school unfold a bit more before deciding whether to step in.

"Here's the thing about first-graders," I said. "It's not that unusual for them to form little clubs—but these clubs rarely mean the same thing to first-graders as they do to adults." I explained that while kindergartners usually consider themselves friends with the entire class, first-graders realize they like spending time with some classmates more than others. There's nothing wrong with this, except they often don't know how to handle their dawning awareness that they don't like everyone the same. Instead of recognizing that they'd rather spend time with certain classmates without being unkind to the rest, they sometimes declare themselves to be members of what are usually silly, short-lived clubs.

I told her that the club might not even last a week, and there was more reason not to worry: "First-graders often find it very easy to fix problems with their friends. They usually consider a problem to be completely resolved if they play together after having a disagreement." My friend agreed that it made sense to give it some time. She didn't want to make a big deal out of something when her daughter might benefit from being able to handle the situation without her.

Even if you would never describe yourself as a helicopter parent, it can be difficult—especially after what we've endured over the past two years—to know where to draw the line between helping your kids and overprotecting them. When is it wise to intervene, and when should you simply say, "I'm so sorry you weren't included in their game. Are there other kids you can have fun with at recess?"

Though my friend and I happened to be talking about first-graders, similar questions pop up for every age. Here are a few common scenarios for different age groups, and some tips on offering your kid support without going overboard.

A Stubborn Toddler

Early one day, your in-laws swing by to return a coffee maker they borrowed and give your 2 1/2-year-old a quick hug, but then they need to leave, as do the two of you. Your son quickly goes from being delighted to see his grandparents to feeling frustrated by their very short visit. You try to cheer him up with the promise that he'll get to spend plenty of time with them over the weekend, but he's still upset.

He gloomily puts on his coat but refuses to zip it—even when you warmly try to cajole him. He usually takes great pride in being able to zip his coat himself, after overcoming months of frustrated fumbling. It's too cold to go outside with an unzipped coat, but being independent has meant so much to him.

What can you do?

Give your son a tender hug, and gently zip his coat. He's down in the dumps for a reason and needs more affection and attention than usual. You don't need to worry that you're doing too much for him because, thanks to your patience, he's already made great progress in developing the difficult skill of negotiating a zipper. He'll almost certainly be back to zipping his own coat as soon as he feels better.

To prevent problems like this in the future, should you ask your in-laws to skip quick visits that might upset your son? Probably not. Learning to deal with disappointment is an important part of growing up. If we find ourselves trying to shield our children from garden-variety causes of emotional distress, we're likely going too far. When we help them discover that they can manage life's inevitable curveballs, we can be sure that we're getting it right.

A Playdate Gone Haywire

Your 8-year-old invites Taylor, a new friend from school, over for a playdate. The girls head straight to the room where you keep family games, and when you peek in a little later, you can't believe the mess that has already been made. Homework issues are inevitable, but making corrections is not your job.

Your guest, it turns out, is a human tornado. She has opened the cabinet where you keep the board games, is inspecting each game briefly, and then dumping the contents on the floor before moving on to the next one that catches her eye. Your daughter seems to find this pretty amusing and opens a drawer containing puzzles with hundreds of pieces. When Taylor makes a beeline for the puzzles, your girl belatedly realizes where things might be headed. She sees you and shoots you a desperate "Oh no!" look.

You're not sure if you should jump in to do damage control, briefly wait to see if your daughter can course correct, or let things unfold—even if they get out of hand—to help her learn a lesson.

What can you do?

There isn't one right answer here, and your choice may come down to how much chaos you can bear to witness. All that matters is how you do whatever you decide to do.

If you don't want to find out what will happen next—as a lover of order, I would be firmly in this category—give your daughter a gracious out. Announce that you're serving snacks in the kitchen. After Taylor goes home, find out what your daughter was thinking. If she can reflect on what happened and tell you what she wishes she'd done differently, your work may be done. If your daughter doesn't seem to have learned from the experience, you're probably in for a longer conversation.

Alternatively, it's also reasonable to give her a chance to take control of the situation. She clearly knows that things are headed down the wrong path and may surprise you by quickly closing the drawer and convincing Taylor that the real fun can be found in the backyard. If she isn't able to distract Taylor, you still have time to come to the rescue.

If you let the situation play out (as long as no irreversible damage will be done), there will be an impressive mess after Taylor goes home, but you'll also have an invaluable teachable moment. Without invoking shame or guilt, you can say, "Well, that certainly didn't go the way we planned," before settling in for a conversation about what went wrong and how things could have gone differently. You can talk things over as your daughter cleans up and you help out as much as seems fair.

overhead view school-aged kid holding marker lined notebook
Homework issues are inevitable, but making corrections is not your job. Tim Marsella

A Homework Emergency

At back-to-school night, your son's fifth-grade teacher shares that the class will undertake a yearlong investigation of ancient Egypt. You don't give the project another thought until a few months later, when you get an email from his teacher asking about the pyramid report due two weeks ago. Apparently, your son has told his teacher that the report is complete but that he keeps forgetting to bring it to school. You're confident that no pyramid report exists.

When your son gets home from school, you ask him about it. He shrugs and says, "I think there might be a handout about the report in my backpack." At the bottom of his bag, you find a crumpled handout about the pyramid report and a second handout describing an elaborate papier-mâché mummy due next week. Clearly, something needs to be done.

What can you do?

One option would be to make an appointment with your son's teacher to let them know that you wish you had heard from them sooner, to point out that many 10-year-olds struggle to complete multiweek projects (which is true), and to request that his pyramid report and papier-mâché mummy be forgiven. For sure, that would be going too far. Even if the teacher went along with your proposal, it would solve the problem in the short term, but rob your son of a valuable opportunity to learn from his mistake.

Another option would be to swing by the library to check out books on pyramids, stop by the craft store to get glue, and dig through the recycling bin for newspaper to turn into mummy wrap. Once home, you could have your son collect key facts about pyramids while you expertly cut old newspaper into uniform strips. This, again, is going too far. Your heroic efforts might help him catch up with his work, but they send the message that, to paraphrase the saying, lack of planning on his part constitutes an emergency on yours.

Instead, the best response here would be to teach your son how to climb out of the hole that he created and how he can stay out of such holes in the future. Sit with him as he looks over what is due and overdue, and help him break each project down into steps. Next, grab a calendar and have him schedule when each step will be done and decide together on a plan for monitoring his progress going forward. Finally, help your son apologize to his teacher for not having told the truth about the status of his project. Let him know that the next time he's unsure about an assignment, he'll feel best if he's honest about it.

A call to the teacher might still be in order, but it shouldn't take the place of helping your son learn how to tackle large projects. Every student runs into trouble with a school assignment at some point along the way. Fixing the problem for them is almost always a sign of helicopter parenting. Providing coaching on how to solve it, however, will put you in the parenting sweet spot.

Before we left the playground that Saturday, my friend and I considered some of the conversations she might have with her daughter. We agreed that she could let her know it's all right to have certain classmates she especially enjoys—and that other kids will have their preferences, too—but it's never okay to exclude someone from a recess game. In a week or two, we thought that it might also be a good idea to gently ask about what was happening with the "headband club." If it was still going strong and remained a sore point, my friend would want to comfort her daughter and, perhaps, encourage her to talk with her teacher about what was happening at recess.

Like all parents, my friend wanted her kid to feel secure and supported. Sometimes we can do this by taking the wheel when our children seem to have lost their way—and sometimes it's better for us to offer guidance from the passenger seat as they learn to navigate the bumpy road of life.

Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a Parents advisor, is the author of Under Pressure and Untangled and the cohost of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's January/February 2022 issue as "Are You Helping or Hovering?" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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