Certain concepts of helicopter parenting, when done right, can actually help kids feel supported without stifling their growth and independence. (Hint: It's OK to hover, once you know how not to get too close.)

By Kristine Jepsen
December 05, 2019
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My fifth grader was scowling at me as I pulled up to the curb after school. She got in and slumped against her door, mute. Unphased, I turned on my truck's blinker and pulled back into traffic. Were these hormones? Was it some tiff with a friend over who likes whom?

Then, I saw my daughter's left hand and what she had scrawled on it, the letters traced dark and distinct in blue ink: "I hate myself. I have no friends." She didn't look at me, but she knew I saw it, even with her hand crammed almost under her leg. This was not the first time I'd seen my child self-criticize, and as a family we had addressed it over many months of support and good therapy—but the blood swarming instantly in my ears told me, "Pay attention! Now!"

I pulled over on a side street and turned to her. "Why did you write that today?" My daughter's eyes filled with hot tears of frustration, and I learned that it's the recess roundabout of he-said-she-said that caused the problem. The issue was neither big nor small, and it wouldn’t be solved by my opinion of how kids push each other’s buttons. But it's something I was able to talk about with her because I was “hovering” close enough to spot writing on her hand.

This is the point where I admit to being a self-proclaimed "helicopter parent," or a mom with a tendency to over-monitor my child's every move and swoop in to help when I see her struggling. Do I know the issues associated with trying to control bad situations my kid gets into? Yes. But do I think there are can be perks to parenting within a close proximity to children? Absolutely.

"When we see our child suffering, our genetic impulse is to rush in and help," explains Annie Fox, M. Ed., author of Teaching Kids to Be Good People and an expert advisor on parenting at Understood.org. "But taken too far, we can suffocate our child's growth and the resilience he or she might learn in the face of challenge. It's a fine line."

The trick, Fox suggests, is to mine the best of "helicopter" strategies while keeping one hand at the controls, ready to ascend to cruising altitude as soon as our child is out of danger—and often before we, as parents, are quite ready to back off. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Here are five lessons every parent can learn from the concept of helicopter parenting, and tips for proper heli-handling.

1. A true "helicopter" is quick to get in and to get out.

"I actually like the idea of 'hovering' because it implies proximity," says Fox, also an online advisor to teens and tweens at anniefox.com. "It means understanding your child well enough to know what he or she needs in the moment. You recognize when to step in, and when to step back—and you do it," she says, firmly.

2. Don’t assume you can see issues better than someone on the ground.

In other words, pay attention, but don’t presume your way of solving a problem is best. Your child is the one with the best view and understanding on how a problem is affecting her. A healthy amount of "hovering" entails skimming close enough to your child's daily activities to sense when something's not right and providing meaningful—but not sanctimonious—help, Fox says. Don't give a vote of no-confidence by suggesting that you know better than your child what he or she needs (or worse, because it's just easier to do something yourself).

"And if you're not sure, ask! Your child struggling with math may say, 'I don't need you to do the problems for me, but I like it when you sit next to me,'" says Fox. "That's a no-brainer. Of course we can do that—and in the meantime, the math is getting done as intended."

3. Use your view from the sky to see the bigger picture, not just your kid.

When you're seeing red flags from your child about their school experience, come down from the sky, Fox says, but at your child’s school. After all, helicopters don't need a runway to land.

"School is a microcosm of our real world," Fox explains, "a place where our physical, social, emotional, and creative needs start to be met, and we learn the skills to maintain relationships." It's also a place where kids learn hard lessons about self-control and self-discipline, among other healthful modes of self-regulation, so it’s every parent's job to weigh in on our education system if there are ways they think it can be better.

Knowing your kid well enough to recognize when challenges are mounting makes you an effective advocate among educators. For example, my daughter has many learning dys-abilities, and having homeschooled her at times in her elementary years, I'm often the advocate sitting in stiff school-issue meetings to suggest (ad nauseum) that I don't care as much about state standards as I do about figuring out how my daughter learns and guiding her in making a lifelong practice of it. Doesn’t that make me a helicopter parent? Yes. Is it still the right thing to do? Yes.

4. There's room at the controls for a co-pilot.

Healthy boundaries between parents and kids are critical, especially as kids get older, Fox explains. "Trust me, when they're not bemoaning peer conflicts, kids ages 11-15 years old are complaining about 'Mom.'"

One way to encourage ongoing, open conversations full of mutual respect is to invite your child into your "helicopter" to get a birds-eye view of the social environment that’s central to his or her identity. "Girls especially love to talk about relationships," says Fox. "Who is BFFs with whom? Draw a chart of the social landscape at school and ask for a progress report on those relationships. Show an interest in social dynamics without judging. Chances are, it will look different to each of you from 100 feet up."

5. The best way to communicate isn’t over the airwaves.

"Hovering" might be most tempting in the monitoring of your child's digital life, says Fox, and your close supervision may help kids' real-life interpersonal development. "Texting is not the best way to process emotions or have a conversation," explains Fox, but it's a cultural norm many kids have never been without. "It's actually drone warfare: pure emotion that does collateral damage, but they don't see the damage, because they're somewhere else."

Naturally though, texting will happen. But when you suspect your child might be experiencing a lack of empathy in real-time, stage an intervention, says Fox. "Print out those troublesome text exchanges, and have both sides read them to each other," she suggests. "Then talk to each other about how it felt, while you're holding the paper. Ask your child what else she could do instead of firing off hurtful texts or instant messages."

In the end, Fox points out, parents still hold critical advantage over technology: "I remind parents all the time: You are the last generation that did not grow up with virtual realities. If you don't show your kids that there are more meaningful ways to connect with people, they will have no knowledge of it—and they may never learn it."

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