Last week I heard a news report about a woman at the University of Cincinnati filing a restraining order against her parents. The 21-year-old complained that her parents were overly involved in her life, visiting her unannounced on campus, reading her emails, checking her cell phone through some type of tracking software, and overall micromanaging her life. She is a music and performance major looking to take her talents to Broadway. She won her case requiring that her parents stop invading her private accounts and stay at least 500 feet away from her. Therefore, if they want to watch her perform I’m assuming they have to sit in the third balcony last row. Even though she lost her parents’ financial support for college, the sympathetic university awarded her a full scholarship for her final year. Meanwhile, in a rather childish retaliation, her parents filed a lawsuit against her to collect the tuition they had paid on her behalf the previous three years. That case is still pending.
This behavior is called "the helicopter syndrome," where parents hover over their children hoping to swoop in and handle both positive and negative situations their children face. The young lady experienced an extreme form of the behavior, but we all know how to fly those helicopters. When our kids are little, helicoptering serves an important function. We make sure we protect them against the cause and effect behaviors that could harm them — like touching a hot iron, running into traffic or drinking Drano — until they can understand for themselves all the dangerous consequences. But we also need to helicopter as our kids start out in activities. We need to attend parent-teacher conferences, support them at their soccer games, monitor their eating habits and protect them as much as possible from unsavory outside influences. Likewise, good discipline goes hand in hand with active helicopter surveillance. We hover and guide and occasionally strike to insure our children develop a strong internal moral compass. We get so used to being good pilots that we can’t always recognize when we need to ground our flights and let our kids go solo. Some abort their flight schedule too early and some, like the Cincinnati parents, add flights well into adulthood.
We’ve all experienced the parents who abort too early. Their kids are the ones who ride around on their bikes without helmets even though they just dropped the training wheels last week. Or the ones who come into your home and exhibit a lack of boundaries for your property and rules. Or those who teach your children that if they type "sex" in the search box, some very interesting websites pop up. I went caroling a couple weeks ago. Having just gotten out of the hospital, I wasn’t up to walking, so one neighbor offered to drive me around since he was also taking a trailer for all the kids. About half-way through, only his kids were left still caroling, so they joined us in the car. Screeching and screaming at decibel levels even rock bands can’t duplicate, these three kids leapt all over the car, crawling into the back storage area, diving into the front seat, kicking me in the head, shaking the back of my seat, and sucking on candy pop rings the entire time fueling their excitable behavior. Dad was oblivious, stopping to chat with neighbors he spotted on the way while his kids popped in and out of the car on the street in the dark with cars everywhere. The temperature sat at 20 degrees, yet these kids wore only sweaters or hoodies and complained of their fingers being cold. I was ready to take my helicopter out of the hangar! However, I have enough trouble flying over my own children’s lives, so I don’t need to add destinations. Luckily, heavenly angels in helicopters fill in occasionally.
Finding the moments to ground ourselves isn’t easy. But we have to be sure to develop the ability to recognize those instances. You can let your children take on more responsibility in situations where you have pretty strong control. During a visit to a restaurant, encourage them to order for themselves, ask for refills if they need them and pay the bill at the cash register. At school, if your child begins to struggle with a subject, urge them to talk to the teacher after school or during recess. You can grease the wheel with a note to the teacher asking him or her to indicate a willingness to talk to your child, but leave the details to the youngster. When I worked for the Wisconsin Soccer Olympic Development Program, we had a strict policy that coaches’ emails and phone numbers weren’t released to the parents. Instead, we told parents that their players needed to talk to their coach on their own. Sometimes that’s difficult for a 10- or 11-year-old to do, even for an 18-year-old. But without taking the first steps we found that players were at the mercy of their parents’ helicopter maneuvers, which weren’t always the direction the kids wanted to go. Every day I fielded plenty of phone calls from concerned and often irate parents who demanded to talk to the ODP coach about why their child didn’t make the state pool or was put in the weaker training group. Coaches would walk the other way when a parent approached. It was a struggle, but eventually the parents learned they had to hover a distance away and let their child go in alone. Find ways for your children to practice talking to their club coach whenever a problem or concern arises. You can walk them to the coach, but have your player do the talking. Have the kids practice asking questions rather than accusing, even have them write the questions down and then tell them to listen without defensiveness as the coach explains his or her answer. That’s good hovering!
Over time our kids will accept our helicopter flights as welcoming rather than smothering when they feel they have most of the control. Letting go piece by piece, moment by moment, makes the transition smoother and still makes us parents feel useful. Having the helicopter fueled and ready to take off isn’t a bad idea. We just need to recognize what are 911 emergencies and what is normal childhood struggle. Failing is part of life, so we need to give our children the secure space to try, either succeeding or failing on their own. Helping them to understand that losing the battle doesn’t mean losing the war is a great use of our helicopter skills. There’s no perfect time for grounding, but over time we should be tapering off on the flights. Don’t quit too soon or you’ll be dealing with kids that are missing their rudder, and don’t quit too late or you’ll be sitting in the third balcony last row watching your kids from a court-ordered distance.