Ever since the 1960’s and Dr. Spock, parenting has had many manuals. Today you can find out about “tiger moms” and “attachment parents.” There are countless manuals, blogs, newsletters and manifestos offering so much advice on parenting that it seems like there is no wrong way to raise a child.
The result of this information overload is that new parents find it almost impossible to trust their own instincts when it comes to raising their children. Book sales are exploding and internet advice is going viral, yet does anyone know if there is any shred of scientific evidence supporting any of the advice? Are our lives so inundated with parenting advice that we have no idea if any of this pop-culture parenting style will help or hurt our children in the long run?
If you search through the scientific research available, you will find that scientists have studied the “helicopter” parent far more than any other parenting style. This type of parent hovers around their children in all places and at all times. They will swoop in like a mother bird; it doesn’t matter if the parent is a father or a mother, and will protect the child from any and all harm and challenges.
The media does not present a helicopter parent in a very flattering light. Amazingly, the limited amount of scientific research available agrees and confirms this anecdotal view.
For example, a study found that children of hovering parents perceived communication with their parents, after having reached adulthood, as being very poor quality. Children raised by other types of parents did not perceive their communications with their own parents in such a bad light. Children of helicopter parents also develop an acute sense of personal entitlement. All that hovering during their childhood made them feel like the world should also be protecting them from challenges and harm.
A second study analyzed college students and found that the students who reported having helicopter parents had lower levels of overall well-being. They tended to be more medicated as the result of developing depression, anxiety or both conditions.
Not all studies identified negative results for hovering parents. One study of young adults found that the children who had overly involved parents produced better well-being scores. On the other hand, the study also found out that the parents of the children reported having reduced life satisfaction. It seems that having raised their children to adulthood, the helicopter parent still believes she or he has to continue to provide intensive support to her or his adult children.
Parenting techniques seem to require heavy machinery since the “snowplow” parent is a close relative of the helicopter parent. The “snowplow” parent will diligently remove any and all obstacles that may be in his or her child’s path.
This type of parent believes that by removing all of the obstacles from his or her child’s path that the child is free to focus on success. They believe their children will not be inhibited by any chance of failure.
In other words, the helicopter parent operates from a state of fear of something going bad while the snowplow parent operates out of the need to make the child’s life as easy as possible.
There is no empirical evidence concerning the plowing parent. But this version of being an over-protective parent is similar enough to broaden out the search for hard evidence.
The Fine Line between Protection and Over-protection
Research shows that over-protective parents produce shyer toddlers who have more behavioral problems throughout childhood and suffer from higher depression scores as an adolescent and increased anxiety as an adult.
This research has found that the hovering and over-protective parenting is a symptom of a family that is otherwise experiencing problems. These problems include difficulty in communicating and broad unhappiness in the home.
Higher maternal anxiety leads to a need to over-parent. This stresses the parent-child relationship for the entire lifetime. Constant intrusion makes it difficult to sustain any form of healthy relationships. There is so much focus on the child that the parents also experience an inability to communicate.
This sounds fairly dismal but we have to remember that both the hovering and the plowing parent are focused on wanting the very best for their children. This focus is a vital element of child development and over-all childhood well-being.
The key to it all is that these types of parents allow their anxiety to push them to do everything for the children and so the children are not allowed to develop autonomy and independence.
At the complete opposite end of the parenting spectrum is the “free range” parent. If you believe that hovering or plowing is too intense, then this style may be well-suited for you. The term itself was coined by Lenore Skenazy who has become known as “America’s Worst Mother.” This title came after she wrote about how she allowed her 9 year-old son to ride the subway system in New York by himself.
Free range children are allowed to roam around outdoors without any parental supervision. Skenazy argues that it is important for children to learn independence and responsibility at an early age. The potential for actual harm to our children, she says, is far less than what we fear.
Every child and every parent is different. The age at which one child can play outside unsupervised may be too young for another child. Some parents will never be comfortable if they cannot see their children at play at all times.
It turns out that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all parenting manual after all. But the limited research performed to date indicates that there must be a gradual development of independence and autonomy as a key to a higher level of emotional and social well-being and future success.
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