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Helicopter, snowplow or free range – what’s your parenting style?

It used to be said that the difficulty with parenting is that no-one gives you a manual, but you could argue that adage is no longer true. From “tiger mums” to “attachment parents”, countless manifestos…

When parents focus intently on their child’s success, sometimes they can miss out on important life lessons. Gladskikh Tatiana/Shutterstock

It used to be said that the difficulty with parenting is that no-one gives you a manual, but you could argue that adage is no longer true.

From “tiger mums” to “attachment parents”, countless manifestos offer advice on how to successfully raise a child. In fact, there’s so much parenting advice around that first-time parents (in particular) can struggle to trust their own instincts and knowledge.

While book sales may be up, is there any scientific evidence to suggest better outcomes for children raised in any of these pop-culture parenting styles?

Hovering around

Most parenting research centres on “helicopter” parenting. Helicopter parents are so named because they hover above their children at all times, regularly swooping in to protect them from challenges and harm.

Anecdotes and media data don’t always present helicopter parents in the most flattering light, and the limited scientific research available appears to confirm this view.

One study found that, by adulthood, children of helicopter parents perceived poorer quality of communication with their parents compared with those whose parents were less helicopter-like. It also found these children had a heightened sense of personal entitlement.

Another study of college students found that those who reported helicopter parenting had lower levels of overall well-being and were more likely to be medicated for anxiety or depression, or both.

In contrast, a third study of young adults found the children of overly involved parents had better well-being scores than others. But their parents reported reduced life satisfaction due to their now-grown children still requiring intensive support.

“Snowplow” parents are just trying to help out but it might bring on anxiety and depression. skishawnee/Flickr

Ploughing through

A close relative of the helicopter parent is another piece of parenting heavy machinery, the “snowplow” parent. This parent diligently removes all obstacles from their child’s path, eliminating challenge and hardship as best they can.

The idea is that by removing all obstacles, the child is free to focus on success and not be inhibited by failure. While the helicopter parent operates out of fear of something happening to their child, the snowplow parent just wants to make their child’s path in life easier.

There appears to be no empirical research on snowplow parenting yet, but both parenting styles could be defined as versions of over-protective parenting, about which there is some evidence.

Protection and over-protection

Research shows that children of over-protective parents are shyer toddlers, have more behavioural problems in childhood, higher depression scores in adolescence, and increased anxiety in adulthood.

Research also points to helicopter and over-protective parenting as being symptomatic of a family unit that is otherwise experiencing problems, which could include communication problems and broader unhappiness within the home.

A propensity to over-parent is associated with higher maternal anxiety; it can mean that the long-term relationship between parent and child can be damaged due to constant intrusion; and it may be difficult to sustain a healthy relationship between parents when so much focus is on the child.

Although this all sounds fairly dismal, it’s important to note that helicopter and snowplow parents behave in the way they do because they want the very best for their child. And this is a vitally important element of child development and well-being.

It’s just that, in their anxiety to ensure their child’s future success, these parents end up doing everything for their children instead of allowing them to develop independence and autonomy by doing tasks themselves.

Free ranging

If all this over-parenting sounds a little too intense, the “free range” parenting style may be the one for you. This is the parenting philosophy coined by Lenore Skenazy, who became known as “America’s Worst Mum” after publishing an opinion piece disclosing that her nine-year-old son was allowed to catch the New York subway on his own.

Free-range parents let their children get into the swing of things. Sands Beach Lanzarote/Flickr

Like their chicken counterparts, free range kids are allowed to roam, unsupervised and outdoors. Skenazy argues that we live in safe times, the potential for harm to our children is far less than we perceive, and that it’s important for children to learn responsibility and independence early.

So at what age can children safely play outside alone? Answering that question gets to the heart of the difficulty with all these parenting styles and philosophies.

Every child is different, and each will develop requisite responsibility at a different rate. Each parent is different, and some will feel at home with their children playing somewhere down the street where others will only feel comfortable when they can see their child at all times.

There’s no universal rulebook but the basic theory of child development suggests that, at some point, the gradual development of autonomy and independence is one of the keys to a higher level of social and emotional well-being and future success. How and when that happens is up to each individual parent.

Join the conversation

8 Comments sorted by

  1. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

    As a father who, with a wonderful wife, has gone through parenting three successful children from birth to fifty plus, my advice is always be yourself, never pretend to be someone else. Children sense when you're bullshitting and if you keep it up you will lose their trust. Be a good role model and if you feel you are not up to a reasonable standard, pull yourself together.

    1. Rick Sullivan

      Vast and Various

      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      Of the four posts so far, Kenneth, yours is the one I really get. Your words 'be yourself' are probably the best advice anyone could give about parenting. If you can't be yourself with your kids (even if that means - as in my own case - 'being a big kid' :), the kids are going to smell a rat, or, as you put it 'sense when you're bullshitting', you will lose that wonderful connection that can't be bought or bottled. I suspect your kids think you and your wife are as good as they come. Well done.

  2. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor

    This is a very complex issue. It is no surprise that all children are all different and some siblings are surprisingly different from each other. Hence there is a need to tailor the parental style to match the needs.This can be very challenging where there is not a good match and parents are unable to alter their preferred style. Some parents are lucky and others are not.

  3. Dale Bloom


    I can’t understand how the author hasn’t mentioned parent absence through divorce and separation as being much more significant than any other parenting style.

    “Children of the well-educated elite now receive unprecedented parental attention aimed at "concerted cultivation" of the skills they will need to thrive in today's highly complex knowledge economy. Other kids, meanwhile, are left more on their own in the traditional style - except that now the "accomplishment of natural growth" is hampered by all the distractions, disruptions, and stresses of family breakup.

    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      ''I can’t understand how the author hasn’t mentioned parent absence through divorce and separation as being much more significant than any other parenting style.''

      I think I can understand, Mr Bloom. It's because the topic of the article is the current excess of parenting advice that exists in populist books, and how this influences parents. Since there aren't a lot of parenting advice books recommending divorce or separation (at least, to my knowledge), that factor is not relevant to the topic. Does that make sense now?

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      No, I still don’t understand.

      The greatest problem for children is divorced and separated parents, and not helicopter, snowplough or free range parents.

      So let’s get priorities correct.

  4. Christie Harris

    Director of Domestic Management at The Castle

    As each child has come along I've found myself becoming more of a free-range parent, I suspect at least partly because I discovered that they really are curious, clever little beings that don't NEED constant catching and steering, and partly because three children close together is incredibly demanding even without trying to be everything to everyone at once.

    Mostly, though, I think parenting ends up being a mish-mash of whatever suits the situation - the child's temperament; the proximity of…

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  5. Tim Gill

    logged in via Twitter

    Thoughtful article on a topic close to my heart (not least because I'm in Aus on a lecture tour speaking about childhood) - and I appreciated the links to research. I agree that there are too many people trying to tell parents how to do their job - something I avoid in my writing and work. But there's no denying that the dominant parental norm says that being a good parent means being a controlling parent. And this is a problem. As the article says, there are solid developmental reasons for allowing children the opportunity to learn from their experiences and their mistakes, and to get a sense of their own abilities and boundaries, in order to equip them for life as an independent adult.