Helicopter parents under attack

Under attack.
Under attack. 

Adults' cruelty to children knows no bounds. Two unrelated events brought this dark knowledge to the fore this week. A group of former child "migrants" from Britain is bringing a class action suit alleging physical and sexual abuse at the Fairbridge Farm School in Molong in central NSW in earlier decades. And 11 Australians were arrested in connection with accessing child pornography on the internet.

As well as these graphic instances of child exploitation and abuse, parents commit terrible sins of cruelty and neglect every day, resulting in rocketing numbers of children being removed from their care.

Yet in the midst of so much cruelty and neglect of children, it is the "helicopter" parent, the so-called hovering, over-involved, and watchful parent, that is frequently depicted as the new threat to today's children's well-being.

From Time magazine to the high-brow The Atlantic magazine, from women's rags to broadsheet newspapers, everyone wants to beat up on those parents who are seen as overly sensitive to their children's needs. The new parenting mantra is failure is good for children, and so is a little suffering.

In the last year an avalanche of rebuke has rained down on the heads of parents who spend "too much" time on the soccer sidelines, or ferry their children to "too many" activities, or offer "too much" help with homework". Worst of all are those who commit the unpardonable sin of boosting their child's self-esteem by praising work that may not be first-class.

Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, who published a much quoted study recently that claimed to show young people in their 20s were "quitters" with inflated egos, castigated parents for having created such a lost and useless generation. Parents had given them too much help, robbed them of independence, and told them too often they were special when, in fact, they weren't.

It has been open season on parents ever since; Wikipedia has an extensive listing on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, also known as over-parenting, though it notes the phenomenon has not been subject to much academic research.

The latest attack comes in the current edition of The Atlantic by writer turned clinical psychologist Lori Gottlieb who comments on a puzzling phenomenon.

While bad parents have been the bread and butter of therapists, with patients quick to blame their mum and dad for their neuroses, and therapists quick to agree with them, the new flock of patients is different, Gottlieb says. The patients say their parents have been wonderful, kind, supportive. But still the patients feel "empty''.

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Despite the patients liking their parents and praising them, it turns out the parents are to blame any way. Broadly speaking, you guessed it, they've been too caring, too quick to smooth the way, and spare their children anxiety and disappointment, according to the phalanx of experts Gottlieb consults.

Doubtless there are smothering parents who inflict deep psychological wounds on their children by robbing them of initiative and independence.

But in the pantheon of parenting sinners, the arrows are being targeted at the wrong people. Parents who are harsh and inflexible in dealing with their children, lack warmth, are inconsistent in their discipline, fail to supervise properly, and are not involved much in their children's lives are much more likely to be a risk to their children's well-being and to create young adults with serious behaviour and psychological problems.

A major 2008 research paper, Parenting and Families in Australia, released by the team behind the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, highlights these parenting styles as the problematic ones.

It is common to sneer at parents who ferry their children to sport and ballet, and other activities. But little is ever said of the parent who prefers to sleep in on the weekend or doesn't care enough to ensure their children participate in sport with their friends.

And while the parent who helps "too much" with the homework is frowned upon, the parent who leaves a child to flounder in confusion and to fall behind escapes public disapproval in the new backlash against over-parenting. The uninvolved parent is teaching their child independence, and what failure feels in order to prepare them for the harsh realities of life.

Yes on the continuum of parenting styles, there are bad examples at either end. But most parents muddle through, doing their best. Minor parenting flaws will not condemn children to a lifetime of neuroses.

Most try to socialise their children into acceptable behaviour, try not to spoil them, and understand the difference between being a friend to their child and being a parent. Most parents know that children like and need limits and boundaries, however much they protest.

But in a world where so much cruelty is still dished out to children by parents and other adults, it is surely better to err on the side of kindness than harshness, on the side of involvement than of absence.

If the progeny of these maligned parents eventually end up in a psychologist's room, complaining of feeling "empty", well, it's their problem. Compared to the offspring of cold, angry, uninvolved or chaotic parents, they stand a better chance of working it out.