Toughen up, kid!

Helicopter parenting seems to  be gathering momentum globally. But what happens when children aren’t allowed to learn from their mistakes? By Susan Hayden.
The second eight year old Jacques finishes his Karate lesson, his mother, Monique is waiting on the sidelines with antibacterial swipes , wheat and gluten free crackers and a bottle of filtered water. Though he is robust and allergy free, Jacques isn’t allowed sugar, salt or dairy and has never eaten fast food. On the way home, Monique quizzes her son about his school day, and then they spend the afternoon tackling his homework and going through a series of extra maths and reading lessons.
Aside from Karate, Jacques studies French, takes piano lessons, plays football and does art classes. It makes his extra curricular program a full time job for Monique who is by his side constantly, monitoring and coaching. By evening Jacques is cranky with exhaustion, and often falls asleep at the dinner table. But his Mum, previously a public prosecutor (she stopped working when he was a toddler) has made raising him her life’s work and wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“Overparenting”, “helicopter parenting” or “death grip parenting” has received a lot of media attention over the past few years as what used to be known as spoiling (over-indulging children coupled with an inability to say no) has been supplanted by a different, more anxiety –driven form of child rearing. The fear that something bad will happen to their child if they’re not watched over 24/7 is the driving force behind “helicopter parenting”. 

This state is mitigated by a new kind of performance anxiety -  that children of “helicopter parents” will somehow be left behind or end up as under achievers if they are not constantly monitored and pushed to do their best. At the same time, this development  sees a troubled disregard for old fashioned boundaries and what was once considered appropriate behaviour. Who hasn’t been to the dinner party  that was usurped by a treacherous, pyjama- clad four year old who was allowed to eat all the entrees and demanded constant attention?  

With the world having become a more dangerous and competitive place, parents like Monique feel more comfortable exerting this measure of control over their child’s lives. But this claustrophobic style of raising children has serious consequences for their development, as “helicoptered” children are denied the opportunity of learning some important life lessons.“While keeping your child safe through been vigilant and alert is a sign of good parenting, the paranoia-based phenomenon  seen in “helicopter parenting” (hovering too closely) or “lawnmower parenting” (smoothing out every obstacle in their way) is a classic example of good intentions gone seriously awry, and smothers their child’s natural growth”, says Jo-Lynn du Randt, a Cape Town psychologist.

Vital life lessons.

So why is this form of parenting deleterious to a child’s development? Children need to live life in order to learn: they have to fail, they have to experience frustration, they have to negotiate their own way and fight there own battles, and they need to suffer the consequences of there own actions” says Du Rand. ”Children have to develop the skill to pick themselves up after falling down. This allows them to learn to meet their own needs. It teaches them independence, how to take responsibility for themselves  and how to be self sufficient and brave. The ‘soft’ skills of motivation, persistence, resilience, tenacity, self-confidence, having solid boundaries and a solid work ethic are all based on these vital life lessons.”

So, while a parent might believe that they’re doing everything in the best interest of the child, they are in fact preventing them from developing the resilience and coping techniques that will be required of them as they enter young adulthood.In A Nation of Wimps: The high cost of invasive parenting (Broadway), Hara Estroff  Marano, looks at why, despite the prevalent belief  that constantly stimulation babies and young children is imperative to their growth and development, the contrary actually holds: As children explore their environments by themselves – making decisions, taking chances and coping with fear and frustration – the real growth and development takes place.

They think they come First.

Marano explains that, speaking strictly in neurological terms, when young children are prevented from learning by trial and error, their nervous systems don’t develop as well as those of children who are given the chance to explore their environment on their own. So parents who continually engage their babies and children in play are, in fact, doing them a disservice .It appears that these “helicoptered” children don’t grow into very nice adults either.

Referred to as “Millennials”, “Generation Y” or the “Peter Pan Generation”, over parented individuals enter adulthood never having had to compete with others, nor having been criticized or pushed to excel. As du Randt explains: “Whereas in previous generations you were expected to work hard for your achievements, with Generation Y, parents blame the teachers for ‘not providing the service paid for’.“It is not surprising that surveys show an increased sense of entitlement and narcissism in this generation. Their priorities are simple – they are the best and they come first.

And its their way or the Highway- an ethos that doesn’t bode well for teamwork. This generation is also one of impatience and immediate gratification, and it has a strong sense of entitlement. Self expression is favoured over self- control, and these youths have been described as the most self entitled, irresponsible and immature workers to date”.

The parents who overparent.

Dr Jenny  Da Silva, a Johannesburg educational psychologist, explains that the individuals who are most likely to overparent are those  who are competitive and overly focussed on success, and want their children to be better than their peers at any cost.

She says that this type of parent typically lives his or her life through their child and they are intent on not allowing their children to make the same mistakes   they made. “As a result, they deny their children important opportunities for  learning. Over parenting can also occur when parents have no identity other than that of being a parent. In this instance, their self-image is closely tied to the successes of their children.”Da Siva goes on to say it is imperative to find a balance between parenting your child and having a life of your own.

Their are so many other roles that parents have to fulfil and she encourages parents to explore and nurture them- and the parts of themselves that aren’t connected to being a mother or a father, so they are not defined by their child’s success and inevitable failures.She also urges parents to allow their children to experience the failures that are an inevitable part of life, because it is through these failures that children learn, grow and mature. “While parents should be involved in their child’s education, doing the child’s homework for them isn’t conducive  to their learning, and it teaches them to remain dependant on their parents.”

Children look to their parents for clues about how to navigate the world. When parents are overly competitive, children learn that winning is everything: when parents show signs of fear and anxiousness, children internalise that the world is unpredictable, mirroring this anxiety back.While life in a high-crime country such as South Africa requires a higher than normal amount of vigilance and caution, parents should be wary of instilling too much anxiety and fear in their offspring.

A healthy respect for the environment we live in needs to be tempered by the belief that – while bad things can and do happen- chances are we’ll  be just fine.Let them play and get hurt.If you suspect you might be at risk of Overparenting, a good starting point is to listen to what your children are telling you, says Dr Da Silva.

  •  Children are usually quiet verbal about when they need space and privacy. This is a normal part of development and a necessary step towards their independence.
  •  It is very important that children learn to take the responsibility that is appropriate to their age. They should be allowed to play and get hurt, disagree with their peers, fight their battles, make mistakes and learn.
  •  Tempting as it might be to interfere , when you allow your children the space and opportunity to work things out for themselves, you are actually communicating that you have faith in them and their ability to make decision and make good judgement. In doing so,  you are boosting their morale and self-confidence. Independence and self-confidence are probably the most important assets your child will ever have.