As advocates of parent-child rough-and-tumble play, we have often bumped up against the bubble-wrapping tendencies of the helicopter parent. So when Merriam-Webster announced recently that helicopter parent is now a bona fide entry in their dictionary, we took notice. The concept — a parent who is overly involved in the life and safety of his or her child — surely predates the first known use of the phrase, in 1989. But official inclusion in the dictionary suggests that helicoptering is not just a fad that will go out of style. In fact, more and more parents seem to be in hover mode these days, but the trend is worth standing up to. Because the truth is that children benefit from precisely the opposite of helicoptering: rowdy, physical, interactive play — or roughhousing. Roughhousing between parent and child, not helicoptering, makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, likable, ethical and physically fit.
A deeper look at the hovering of these helicopters reveals the evolving nature of the parent-child relationship. When their children are young, helicopter parents are powered by an intense obsession with physical and emotional safety. They hover over play areas and revel in the role of referee, enforcing a zero tolerance for skinned knees or bruised feelings. When their children get older, this obsession shifts to hyperacademics: Study your brains out (a recent ad for a preschool in the Boston Parents Paper featured a toddler in a white coat with the words, “Pre pre pre pre med”). Play, fun and real connection with other kids and with parents becomes a waste of time. As one mother in one of our workshops put it, “I always thought there was always something more important to do.”
Helicopter parents might argue that roughhousing can cause bumps and bruises, but the other possible effects of helicoptering could be far worse. A recent Journal of Evolutionary Psychology article described that when children are helicoptered away from all risk, they aren’t safer, they are just more anxious. If they are never allowed to scale a jungle gym or have the chance to wrestle with their parents or another child, they are unable to develop appropriate coping mechanisms for failure, hurt or disappointment. They also have a harder time with confidence, courage and creativity.
For others, focusing too much on the future leads to a collapse, a giving up and dropping out of what seems like an impossible and exhausting ordeal. In the words of a “recovered” helicopter parent we know, “I finally got it when I realized all I wanted for my child was a manageable failure, a blip on the screen, a trip to the principal’s office — something to help him learn the art and beauty of imperfection and the fact that life goes on even when it isn’t exactly how we planned it to go.” These ideas bring to mind another term, boomerang child, which was also entered into the dictionary this year. A boomerang child is a young adult who returns home to live with his or her parents after college, usually due to financial reasons. Aside from the obvious economic factors, it’s possible that some of these boomerangers are the result of too much helicoptering, too much attention on the avoidance of falling or failing — and not enough attention on the excitement of risk or the wonders and dangers of the unknown.
Over the next 20 years, will helicopter parenting become the norm? We hope not. That would spell disaster for children and for parent-child relationships. Instead, more and more parents should make play a priority, especially the kind of physically active rambunctious play that makes helicopter parents squirm.