Elevating, not helicoptering

Posted 6/9/21

Before I had kids of my own, I thought “helicopter parenting” was an extreme sport. Let’s also try bungee-jumping parenting and skydiving parenting!

But the truth is quite serious. In this …

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Elevating, not helicoptering

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Before I had kids of my own, I thought “helicopter parenting” was an extreme sport. Let’s also try bungee-jumping parenting and skydiving parenting!

But the truth is quite serious. In this case, “helicoptering” refers to hovering by a caregiver, an adult anxiously watching for the opportunity to swoop in and help the child. For example, adults who keep their hands just inches from the young one climbing a slide on the playground.

Of course, no one wants their kid to get hurt, but there’s also the danger that our best intentions harm our children. Helicoptering may prevent children and adolescents from learning to do things for themselves long after their playground days.

My friend Paul and I recently discussed this helicoptering dynamic. He has adult children and is a professor at N.C. State.

Because one of his sons attends N.C. State, Paul is a member of two N.C. State parent Facebook groups. There are lots of helpful discussions in the groups such as, “What kind of computer does my child need?” — but they not infrequently cross into helicopter territory.

In those cases, the parents assumed responsibilities that could have been learning opportunities for their students. In the most alarming posts, parents decided what classes or instructors their students should take. They had their students’ cars fixed. One parent was looking for a cleaning service for a student apartment. Several organized to complain to administrators about COVID-19 restrictions. They wanted students, faculty and staff back in the classroom at the height of the pandemic.

We do not wish to be read as self-righteous. We admit that we, too, are guilty of helicoptering. It is natural to want to help one’s own flesh and blood! But before swooping in, we find it helpful to ask, Who am I really trying to help? Is my child in real and present danger? Or, is the actual problem that am I uncomfortable watching them struggle?

Author Janet Lansbury encourages caregivers to practice such self-awareness. Instead of helicoptering, Lansbury describes “elevating child care” as allowing children “to face age-appropriate struggles.” In her work, Lansbury builds on the theories of Magda Gerber, a pioneer of parenting advice in the 20th century, but we think the idea of elevating child care goes back even further.

Long ago, Paul of Tarsus wrote that “suffering produces perseverance” (Romans 5:3). The original Greek for “suffering” referred to pressing down on something (or someone), while the word “perseverance” literally meant to remain under a weight. It is not always helpful to helicopter in and pull out a loved one from a difficult situation, for “perseverance produces character” (Romans 5:4). “Character” originally described a coin made out of refined metal. Metal is refined or purified by pressure and heat.

We are not suggesting that anyone put their kids through the ringer! We don’t want our children to suffer. But a struggle can be good for them. Instead of zooming to the rescue, sometimes we can help by backing off so that they can lift themselves.

Parenting is an extreme sport — it can be extremely difficult to watch your child struggle or even fail.

But whether the challenge was for a 3-year-old daughter to climb to the top of a slide or a 23-year-old son to return to college, we have never been prouder of our children than when they have climbed to a pinnacle on their own.

Paul Isom lives in Chapel Hill and teaches journalism at N.C. State. Andrew Taylor-Troutman is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church.


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