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Helicopter or hands-off: today’s parents can’t seem to win

Look, here’s mummy! Pikul Noorod

Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, has criticised “highly educated parents and academic schools” for producing, in the words of a Sunday Times headline, a “generation of no-copers” who achieve perfect grades in school but “cannot cope with the real world”.

“The idea that children have to have a string of A grades is a terrible thing”, Dweck told The Sunday Times, putting the blame for all these A grades on “parental influence”. “In the past few generations we have seen the emergence of highly educated mothers … They schedule all these activities and advocate for the child.”

Dweck is alluding to the phenomenon of “intensive mothering” – where the rearing of children has come to be seen as a highly skilled, expensive, and challenging pursuit that demands that parents (and particularly mothers) put increasing amounts of time and intellectual energies into ensuring their children’s optimal development. Indeed, the argument that the malaise of today’s youth is down to a generation of parents who are too ambitious and overprotective to allow their children grow up is becoming an increasingly common one.

There is even a label – the “helicopter parent” – which hails from the US but, like many such cultural tropes, has been gleefully adopted over here. The helicopter parent is, allegedly, a product of the Baby-Boomer generation of parents who, indulged and self-indulgent themselves, are now importing their spoiled individualism into their own little “Mini-Me"s.

It is hardly surprising that the Baby Boomers are coming under fire for their alleged parenting styles. My research into the media and policy discussion about the Boomer generation indicates that, in recent years, it has found itself blamed for a bewildering range of social problems: from the global financial crisis to the disintegration of the welfare state. Given that parents in general seem to be blamed for an awful lot these days, Baby Boomer mums and dads make convenient scapegoats for wider anxieties about child rearing.

But when it comes to the demands of today’s parenting culture, they really can’t do right for doing wrong. The complaint about "helicopter parenting” simplifies a difficult cultural problem – widespread societal anxiety about allowing children to grow up – and presents it as a question of individual parents’ attitudes and behaviours.

Concerted cultivation

It is, of course, a problem that the younger generation is infantilised by a culture of overprotection. Children are ferried from pillar to post rather than being allowed to play outside with each other. Young adults turn up to university interviews with mum and/or dad in tow. Increasingly, young people seem unwilling or unable to handle ideas or speech that they find offensive, let alone to deal with the harder knocks of life.

Parenting comes naturally to some. EPA/Ferdy Damman

In education, it is a problem that the pursuit of top grades is increasingly seen as not only the main goal of education, but a task to be undertaken by parents themselves. The relentless pursuit of what the US sociologist Annette Lareau has termed “concerted cultivation” speaks to a one-sided approach to growing up, where instrumentalist, individualised concerns about academic and career success often seem to take the place of a wider focus on the good society, or the life well lived.

But can this all be the fault of pushy, highly-educated, helicopter parents? The deeper problem is the “double bind” of parenting culture in which parents are exhorted to protect their children from an expanding range of physical harms, emotional challenges, and perceived slights. When parents are continually told that their paramount concern should be the safety and success of their children, no wonder kids are scared to venture out alone and parents end up doing their homework for them.

Double bind

The helicopter parent trope presents the parent trying her hardest to meet the impossible demands of child-centred parenting – often involving a significant financial, emotional, and time cost – as a selfish “tiger mother” who is setting her child on the path to anxiety and self-harm.

Stop whining Jemima, you are going to ballet class and that’s all there is to it. Ewais

Meanwhile, parents who lack the economic, cultural or personal resources to engage in helicopter parenting are also frowned upon, for not being involved enough in their children’s education, or concerned enough about their health, safety, or emotional well-being. Just look at the official opprobrium directed at parents who allow their children to get a bit fat, miss a bit of school, fail their exams, or break a limb in an unsupervised playground.

Our culture may sneer at helicopter parents – but it is even less accepting of parents who can’t, won’t, or simply don’t want to hover over their children every minute of the day. Indeed, reading US sociologist Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, you would be forgiven for thinking that the only thing standing between a child’s half-decent future and the slough of poverty and despondence is their parents’ ability to invest in an Ivy League education and improving extracurricular activities around the clock, while also finding the time to sit down to a “family meal” every day of the week.

We know, deep down, that such “paranoid parenting” is unnecessary, unappealing, unattainable – and probably unkind. But so great is the fear of what might happen if they don’t do it that many parents find themselves pushed in this direction.

The existence of the double bind of parenting culture indicates that what is at stake here is not simply the alleged failure of some parents to live up to an ideal parenting standard. Rather, the idea that parents can do right by their children – whatever they do – is held in question.

Media and policy circles are filled with people issuing their own contradictory warnings and prescriptions about what children should eat, how they should play and what parents should do – while nobody seems to want to listen to the parents themselves.

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