The experience of having children is something that many of us have in common. In fact, in the United States, about 66 percent of women between the ages of 30 and 34 have children, and that number jumps to 80 percent if you’re between the ages of 35 to 39, and 85 percent if you’re over 40. Despite having this shared experience, no two parents approach raising children in exactly the same way. There are many modern terms for different types of parenting styles; perhaps you identify with “free-range parenting,” or “attachment parenting,” or maybe you like to think of yourself as a “tiger mom.” Among these new terms, the one that you are likely to hear the most about is called “helicopter parenting.”
The term helicopter parenting was coined in the 1990s and generally applies to parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives, especially in academic and achievement-related activities. A textbook helicopter parent tends to remove obstacles that their children face in order to encourage them to succeed (Odenweller, Booth-Butterfield, & Weber, 2014). Helicopter parents are generally well-educated, well-resourced parents who are incredibly well-intentioned, looking to both protect their children from trouble and provide them with as many opportunities as possible.
However, research suggests that inflexibly trying to maintain the same level of control over children regardless of what’s developmentally appropriate can be problematic (Schiffrin et al., 2014). In fact, despite some of the positives of helicopter parenting, it has also been associated with negative child outcomes, such as higher levels of anxiety and depression, lower ratings of psychological well-being (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2011), as well as a lack of independence and ineffective coping skills (Odenweller, Booth-Butterfield, & Weber, 2014).
Finally, the “authoritative” parents occupied the sweet spot in the middle; they were supportive yet demanding. And perhaps most importantly, authoritative parents were flexible—they changed the rules as their children matured, which resulted in children who could also flexibly deal with the challenges they faced. In fact, Baumrind found that children of authoritative parents were the most well-adjusted, and the most likely to be independent and well-socialized (Baumrind, 1966).
And despite the good intentions of most over-involved parents, children of helicopter parents don’t necessarily perform well in school. In fact, helicopter parenting is associated with lower academic performance in children, more extrinsic or reward-based motivation, and avoidance goals for learning (Schiffrin & Liss, 2017). In other words, these children don’t develop the motivation to master new skills—they mostly just work hard to get a good grade—and they avoid feedback, as criticism or failure can lead to embarrassment or shame.
It turns out that children need to make mistakes to learn. For example, every typically developing baby will one day face the challenge of learning to walk. Importantly, walking isn’t something babies learn to do in just one day—it takes days and weeks and months, with a lot of steps and falls along the way. In fact, research has shown that infants between the ages of 12 and 19 months take an average of over 2,000 steps in a single hour of walking, and fall about 17 times during that same time period (Adolph, Cole, Komati, Garciaguirre, Badaly, Lingeman, Chan & Sotsky, 2012). That’s a lot of mistakes, but every fall presents an opportunity to correct those mistakes and learn from them.
Babies don’t mind making mistakes, but as they get older, children eventually learn to associate making mistakes with feeling ashamed or embarrassed (Duckwork, 2016; Lewis, Alessandri, & Sullivan, 1992). To avoid promoting these emotions, when children do mess up, gentle discipline coupled with support and feedback can help provide them with the right expectations and support autonomy at the same time (Baumrind, 2013; Grolnick & Pomerantz, 2009; Grusec, 2011; Stifter & Augustine, 2019). Researchers have even suggested that parents try to model mistake-making for their kids, and some school interventions teach teachers to make grammatical mistakes on purpose and let children catch them (Bodrova & Leong, 2006).