When your parenting might be helicoptering (Even though you're well-intentioned)

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Jun 6, 2012

Photo by Priscillia

Helicopter parents.

Stealth bomber parents.

Velcro parents who keep sticking.

We’ve heard the terms, and you likely know a parent (maybe even you) who has those tendencies. But what sort of impact does that type of hovering parenting have on young people?

In a recent New York Times “room for debate” cluster of articles, this question was raised: When Do Kids Become Adults? In one particularly interesting article, Psychology professor Barbara Hofer discussed “A Parent’s Role in the Path to Adulthood”.

Before I excerpt from Hofer’s article, let me restate that the New York Times cluster of articles was called “room for debate”. Keeping that in mind, here is what Hofer had to say:

Yet my research with Abigail Sullivan Moore, reported in our book, shows that many college students are in frequent contact with their parents — nearly twice daily, on average — and that frequency of contact is related to lower autonomy. Parents who are using technology (calls, Skype, texting, e-mail, Facebook, etc.) to micromanage lives from afar may be thwarting the timely passage to adulthood. Not surprisingly, these college students are also not likely to see themselves as adults, nor fully prepared to take the responsibilities of their actions, nor even getting the benefits of college that they and their parents are paying for. One in five students in our study report parents are editing and proofing their papers, for example. College parents can help with the transition by serving as a sounding board rather than being directive, by steering their college-age kids to campus resources for help, by considering long-range goals rather than short-term ones and by giving their “kids” space to grow up.

Our Sticky Faith research findings encourage parental contact with college students (regardless of who initiates the contact) but Hofer and Moore add the important question regarding the purpose of the contact. Is it to rescue students, or is it to empower them?

How do you know if you might be helicoptering? A few questions parents can reflect upon come to mind:

1. Are you doing for your kid what they can do for themselves? I’m amazed at how many times I’ve heard parents complain about all their kids aren’t doing (i.e., they don’t make their lunches, they don’t track their homework, they don’t clean their rooms) and then their parents step in and keep doing for kids what they could be doing for themselves.

2. What motivates the way you step in to help? Is it fear or love? That’s often a question I ask myself. Am I motivated by fear of what will happen to them (and even worse how that will somehow reflect on me, at least in my own mind) or by lovingly wanting what is best for them, even when what is best for them involves some pain?

3. What is my ultimate vision for my child, and is what I’m doing leaning toward or away from that vision? A few years ago I was inspired by this grandparent’s vision for their granddaughter. I love this very clear picture of what God will do in and through this child. Similarly, do we have a clear vision? And are our actions today helping our child move toward or away from that picture?

What else do you ask yourself, or think about, to try to determine if you are being helpful or hovering (or as my brother calls it, “overly helpful”)?

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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