Helicopter Parents: Why Now?

December 4, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I’ve written a bit about “helicopter parents” recently. It seems to be a subject that’s on a lot of people’s minds. Lenore Skenazy’s “Free Range Kids” movement is nothing if not a response to the hovering parent phenomenon. I’m a fan of Skenazy and her movement. Anyone who talks as much common sense about childrearing as she does can’t be all bad and, in any case, her whole point is the welfare of children. Kids do better when they’re allowed to try and fail and try again than when Mommy or Daddy is always there to explain how to not fail.

So I was interested in this article by Megan McArdle (Bloomberg News, 11/30/15). She too is no fan of too-close parenting.

Volumes have been written about the rise of helicopter parenting. We know the symptoms: obsessive hovering, with the aim of making sure that Junior grows up in a well-padded Nerf world where nothing more distressing than a hangnail ever befalls them. The results have also been extensively elaborated: a generation growing up anxious, risk-averse, and generally unable to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

But, while McArdle acknowledges and bemoans the phenomenon, her sights are rightly set elsewhere. Specifically, she wants to know why. More importantly, she wants to know why now. Parents have always had kids, but, as far as we know, there’s never been this trend toward compulsively hovering. As she points out, pioneer families and those during the Great Depression had plenty to worry about and those included their children’s well-being. But the idea of one of Walker Evans’s mothers fretfully plucking at her hankie while never letting her brood out of her sight is beyond belief.

So why now? Why the fairly sudden sprouting and spread of helicopter parents?

The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that we got richer, and richer people can expend more effort protecting their kids. This certainly jibes with the observation that the most obsessively overprotected kids are the children of the affluent. Yet even this explanation raises a sort of “yes, but.” We haven’t gotten that much richer in the 30 years since I was in school, and yet parenting has undergone a radical transformation. Despite legions of women going back to work, parents spend more time with their children than they did a few decades ago. Can we really explain this in terms of people getting richer? Intensive parenting is most common among the group of parents who are working more hours than they used to, not fewer…

So if that’s not the answer, what is? McArdle thinks it’s not just that some of us have become richer and therefore have the time to hover. She thinks the phenomenon has more to do with who got richer. Basically, her argument is this: the affluent among us tend to be professionals, not entrepreneurs; unlike entrepreneurs who can leave the family business to their kids, professionals can’t will their law licenses, medical licenses, etc. to their offspring. If little Andy or Jenny wants to practice medicine, he/she will need to pass the courses, get into medical school, graduate, do a residency, etc. Meanwhile, beneath the feet of the relatively affluent, an economic chasm yawns. The erosion of the middle class means that, if little Andy or Jenny fails to become a doctor or lawyer or some other high-earning professional, then what? In a time of ever-greater economic inequality, those parents are desperate to ensure that their kids remain closer to the 1% than to the 99%.

Ergo, they hover. They will do anything they can to steer Andy or Jenny through the shoals of high school and college because the consequences of failure are too high.

Such is McArdle’s thesis. I don’t disagree with it, but it fails to explain much of the phenomenon we both dislike. For one thing, as I’ve said before, even as law schools are producing too many lawyers for all to make a good living, skilled trades are crying for applicants to apprenticeship programs. The simple truth is that little Andy or Jenny could bypass college — and its attendant high costs — altogether, apprentice as a plumber, electrician, HVAC technician, etc. and earn good money in just a couple of years. They’d have no burdensome school debt and be positioned to be that entrepreneur for which McArdle pines.

Of course the skilled trades don’t get you a house in the Hamptons, but what parent ever believed that was necessary for their child to have a good life?

But McArdle’s main mistake is in looking at parents. That’s understandable of course in an article about helicopter parents. But a lot of parental decision-making isn’t about parents; it’s about the government. Many, many parents know exactly what I’m talking about. Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, of Maryland, were the furthest thing from helicopter parents, and look at what it got them — months of investigation by their local police and CPS caseworkers.

Skenazy has this article on two other recent cases (Reason, 12/3/15). In one, a mother overslept one morning and her eight-year-old son got himself ready and walked to school on his own. I call that a can-do kid. But despite the fact that he was in no way harmed during his adventure, Mom now faces up to 10 years in prison plus a $5,000 fine.

The point being that, whatever one’s parenting preferences, very powerful forces may disagree, and if they do, a parent’s risk is astronomical. He/she can lose a child forever. There are few governmental powers more awe-inspiring.

Now, I haven’t yet heard of CPS showing up at anyone’s door investigating an allegation that the parents insufficiently helped their child with his/her application to Harvard. But to some extent, the hovering tendency is instilled by fear — fear of the knock on the door and the obtrusive, never-satisfied judgment of child-welfare workers.

But, although that fills in a gap in McArdle’s thesis, it still doesn’t answer “why now?” Why have CPS and the police only recently become so willing to punish parents for quite minor oversights that do children no harm?

Allow me to argue that it all began in the 1980s with the hysteria over child abuse in daycare centers. Back then, numerous lurid legal cases involving daycare teachers at Fells Acres Daycare, the McMartin Preschool, etc. blazed across the front pages of newspapers and shouted from television newscasts. Yes, those were almost exclusively bogus charges as any sane person could see simply from the bizarre and even impossible tales told by little kids.

Those cases were, I believe, the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. Well, now the whole beast is in here with us. The daycare cases demonstrated that adults will believe just about any story, regardless of how loony, if it involves a threat of harm to children. After all, in those cases, kids were coming up with stories of sex with butcher knives in space ships and it was adults who believed them. They believed them so fervently that assistant district attorneys wasted millions of tax dollars pursuing patently fantastic allegations. Supposedly sane mental health professionals browbeat little children for more and more outlandish claims and testified, under pain of perjury, to the truth of the allegations.

Truly, it doesn’t get much stranger than what happened in those courtrooms, and the mind-bogglingly gullible ones were never the kids; they were the adults.

Those cases look to me like the open invitation that law enforcement and CPS eagerly accepted. It was an invitation to the massive expansion of governmental power on the utterly unproven theory that children were, all of a sudden, in danger in ways they’d never been before. As government agencies are always willing to do, they accepted the steady expansion of their roles and the equally steady expansion of their funding, until today we have CPS agencies that have never been larger and “definitions” of child abuse and neglect that include things as innocuous as a mother watching her child play at the end of a cul-de-sac next to his house, parents allowing their children to walk home from a nearby park, a boy playing basketball in his own driveway while waiting for his parents arriving home from work.

No wonder parents hover; the kid police may come and get their children if they don’t.


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Key Words: child abuse, helicopter parents, child protective services, CPS

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