Helicopter parents: Do you wrap your kids in cotton wool?
We all want to make life easier for our little ones. But is stepping in really making things better for them, or are we creating a generation of cotton-wool kids?
Until recently, I'd never thought of myself as a 'helicopter' parent, the kind who hovers over their offspring, monitoring their every move – in fact I actively try not to be. But last week it took my three-year-old to point out that I was over-parenting.
'Mummy, you should let Henry feed himself. He's very good with a spoon you know,' she said as I shovelled bolognese into my 17-month-old. She was right. He can, and should, be feeding himself, and I was taking away his independence and a chance to work on his co-ordination and fine motor skills.
Helicopter parenting has become so popular – the term entered the dictionary in 2011 – that most of us aren't even aware that we're doing it. Maybe you 'help' finish their puzzles, give them a hand when they're climbing stairs, check on them while they're napping even though you have a monitor, cut up their food and even finish their sentences. If more than a couple of those sound familiar, you've probably earned your wings as a helicopter parent.
Helicopter parenting refers to 'a style of parents who are over-focused on their children,' says Carolyn Daitch, director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders in the USA and author of Anxiety Disorders: The Go-To Guide (£19.99, WW Norton). 'They typically take too much responsibility for their children's experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.'
Some of this is down to peer pressure that starts as soon as you're pregnant (don't eat this, don't do that, don't buy one of those), some of it is fear for your child, part of it is that it's easier to spoonfeed or keep carrying them even though they can walk. And some of it is because we simply want to be more involved with our children than ever before – it's become part of the bonding process.
But is this new normal the best way to raise a healthy, independent child? If it's your style of parenting, should you be concerned? Time to call in the experts...
What's going on?
Those NCT gatherings can sometimes feel like a competition; who's rolling first, who's waving, saying words, or walking. But even though you may not want to compete with other mothers, it can feel so important, and possibly worrying, if yours is the laid-back baby taking his time.
One of the key changes in recent years is the rise of endless parenting information and advice, thanks to the internet, media interest and more government intervention around pregnancy and childhood. Such an information overload can breed a sense of anxiety that you're not doing enough for your baby, or that you're not parenting the right way, and you only need to turn to Google to have your worst parenting fears confirmed about absolutely anything.
As a result we're all more involved in our children's lives than ever before, but not many people have stopped to question whether this is actually the best thing for them. Babies and young children need to discover and learn, through play, food and their daily experiences. The more their parents take responsibility for them or try to protect them from knocks, germs and perceived danger, the more they shield their children from real life, and from learning to be independent, rounded people.
So forget worrying about whether you're doing enough for your baby and instead start asking, 'Am I actually doing too much?'
As sociologist Margaret Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (£44, New York University Press), explains, 'You ask yourself, "What should I provide for him?" and, without an answer, you start trying to provide absolutely everything you possibly can, including too much help.'
The good news is that there are some easy ways to undo the 'cotton wool' that we're wrapping around today's kids.
Let go of structure
Is your week like a military timetable, going from soft play to sing-and-sign followed by structured playtime with those lovely wooden toys you bought for them? Now think back to your own childhood: can you remember your parents being as involved as you are now?
There's a fine line between being engaged with your children and being so involved you lose perspective of what they need, or start to tie their achievements in with your own. And there's growing evidence that too much hovering and micro-managing can backfire. In a recent study from North Carolina State University, researchers watched children and their parents in 20 parks over a two-month period. They found that children whose parents hovered and fretted were far less able to engage in spontaneous play and missed out on exercise and social engagement with other children.
Another study by University of Washington psychologists found that children whose mothers provided too much guidance and not enough independence were at an increased risk of becoming anxious or depressed. So start by stripping back some of the structured routine. Do nothing for a day. Go at your baby's pace. If they can walk, why don't you let them lead the way in the park? And let them lead the play session too – what do they want to play with? It might not be those lovely toys – perhaps they just want to 'post' things into the bin, or bang on a pot with a wooden spoon, or pour rice from one cup to another. Give them a cardboard box and let them go wild.
Yes they will put their hands on that dirty rail, yes they will make mud pies, and yes, they will lick their shoes – and that’s fine. Let them pat the friendly dog in the park, and don’t reach for sanitiser every time they fall down. Exposure to germs helps to build a strong immune system. Anyway, the last thing you want to do is foster OCD-like tendencies in them from birth.
A growing body of research also backs the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ which suggests that children protected from germs and even parasites have a greater chance of developing allergies, asthma and other auto-immune diseases.
‘Just as a baby’s brain needs stimulation to develop, the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so it can learn, adapt and regulate itself,’ explains Professor Thom McDade, director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University in the USA.
Take a creative back seat
If your child is drawing – or mark-making as child experts call it – leave them to it. It can be so tempting to ask them to draw a flower and then be disappointed by the scribble on the page, or to try and help them do it ‘right’. But your child’s way is the right way. So what if that camel looks more like a stone, or if their attempts at shaping letters are nothing more than crayon scratches on the paper. This is their creative time – so don’t hijack it.
Dr Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and parenting author (ahaparenting.com), agrees: ‘Focus on the play and process, not the productivity, to let them really engage with what they are doing. Affirm how hard they are working on a picture so that they don’t feel they have to rush through it for your approval.’
Stop tidying up
Make tidy-up time a game you can play together at first. Teach them they can’t get out more toys until they’ve tidied away ones already out. Allow them some responsibility over their possessions. That goes for mess too – if your toddler willfully spills milk, give them a cloth and get them to help wipe up. It’s never too young to start teaching them to take responsibility for their actions.
‘It’s unrealistic – and frankly futile – to expect a young toddler to take care of all his things on his own,’ says Heidi Murkoff, author of the What to Expect series of books (whattoexpect.com). ‘So work together and make it fun: you can tackle the tougher jobs while he does smaller things; set a kitchen timer and race each other to put things away; or sing along while you’re doing it, and you’ll make it twice as fun.’
Drop the spoon
Meals provide one of the earliest opportunities for babies to express themselves. Don’t stop them playing with their food, and encourage them to try feeding themselves as early as possible – they are much more capable than you might think, especially if you give them some control. If your baby can make a pincer grip – can they pick up a raisin and eat it? – they can hold a spoon. Finger food is easiest, so make them penne pasta or soft sticks of butternut squash and leave them to it.
Gill Rapley, co-author of Baby-led Weaning (£10.99, Vermilion), explains that this is the traditional way of weaning babies – it’s only modern helicopter parenting styles and convenience that has us reaching for the squeezy pack of mush. The benefits include faster development of dexterity and co-ordination, plus it’s cheaper – they eat what you eat. On the downside, meals will be longer, and messier, for a while.
Babies may be social creatures but they aren’t born with social skills, they learn them. You might have noticed that they’ll smile for you, but they aren’t especially interested in other babies, or in sharing their toys. It isn’t until children are around two that they start to play with other children, as opposed to simply playing alongside them, and like any other skill in life, they will learn to do this through trial and error, through sharing toys and empathising with other children.
When your tot plays, and sometimes squabbles, with other children, don’t get in their way. Stop yourself from constantly saying things like, ‘Say hello, Stanley,’ or telling them, ‘Share your toys.’ And try not to dive in if they get pushed or are involved in an altercation. By the time they start school they will have to manage these relationships on their own, so help them out by allowing them some freedom to learn how to socialise with others, under their own steam.
Yup, ignore the bad behaviour. Tantrums, tears, shouting and other attention-seeking behaviour is usually exactly that. They want your attention and they know which buttons to push. But if you ignore the behaviour then their ploy doesn’t work, and so they will learn to stop. Give in to it and they’ll know exactly what to do the next time they want mummy to focus on them. Dr Amanda Gummer, a psychologist specialising in play and child development, agrees: ‘It is true that if you pay attention to bad behaviour, it encourages it – if it’s safe to do so, you should ignore it.’
The French have a name for it – well, sort of; they call it le pause. What they mean is, don’t jump in too soon. If your child falls, don’t make a fuss. If you hear a rustling on the monitor in the night, don’t rush in and pick them up – they might just be rolling over. If you jump in all the time they won’t learn, whether it’s how to resettle themselves in the night and self-soothe, or just how to not make a drama out of every bump, scrape or altercation. The more you intervene, the more they will run to you for ‘help’ instead of resolving their situations for themselves.
Family therapist and leadership coach Kathy Caprino cites the increasingly common habit of helicopter parents swooping in too quickly to take care of their children’s problems as one of the main reasons why a generation of young adults today have not developed the life skills that were more common 30 years ago. ‘When we rescue too quickly and overindulge our children with “assistance”, we remove the need for them to navigate hardships and solve problems on their own,’ she explains. ‘Sooner or later, kids get used to someone rescuing them and begin to think, “If I fail or fall short, an adult will smooth things over and remove any consequences for my misconduct.” ‘In reality, this isn’t even remotely close to how the world works, and therefore it disables our kids from becoming competent adults.’
The health benefits of stepping back
Helicoptering around your children and constantly helping them achieve things won’t do you any favours. One study showed that parents who judge their own self worth by their children’s accomplishments report sadness and diminished contentment with life.
In particular, their marriages and other personal relationships seem to suffer. Sociologist Margaret Nelson interviewed around 100 parents and discovered that as the time they spend on childcare rises, their personal relationships seemed to be the first thing to go.
It’s also worth remembering that while your little one may be the centre of your world right now, one day they won’t want to hang out with you. So don’t take over their world completely, keep some space for yourself – it’s important to have something other than the kids to talk about with your partner and your friends.
Illustration by Jenna Lee Alldread