Stanford Dean: Helicopter Parents Leave Kids ‘Without Will and Character’

November 19, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

For a long time now we’ve been treated by the press and popular culture to the doings of college students. A lot of that is alarmingly puerile as we might expect. After all, 18-year-olds, having just left home for the first time, are now and always have been liable to get up to some shenanigans that are by turns silly, self-destructive, rude and ill-considered. So, they may drink too much, do drugs to excess or have sex in situations that are less than loving or even healthy. Such is life. Young people who are still very much children, but who have some of the attributes of adults and who certainly think they’re adults make mistakes.  This is not news.

But what is news is the tendency among some of those college students to present themselves to the world and each other as fragile as a spider web in a rain storm. We see it almost constantly — college students for whom the slightest word “triggers” a storm of feigned agony and vituperation. Let someone like Christina Hoff Sommers, Wendy McElroy or Janice Fiamengo be scheduled to speak on campus and they’ll be greeted with calls for “safe spaces” in which students can hide from ideas that might be new and upsetting. In McElroy’s case, said safe spaces were furnished with needed items like Play-Doh, cookies and videos of puppies. Yes, these are college students, not four-year-olds.

So how is it that we’ve gone from a culture that used to produce post-high school people eager to leave home and experience the world on their own, ready to try and fail, ready to blaze their own trail, to one in which kids of the same age behave like — well — four-year-olds, and spoiled ones at that? How is it that we’ve produced a generation or more of young people for whom nothing is too trivial that it doesn’t threaten their very being?

I’d say parents have a lot to do with that, but let me be clear. My guess is that the students I’m talking about are in the minority. Chances are that most college students are far more mature than the ones fleeing to safe spaces at the mention of the word “man” or “woman” instead of “male-identified” or “female-identified.” I’m sure that the flakes are just more likely to make the news.

But still, when the president of a major university can be forced to resign because he failed to prevent obnoxious racial statements from occurring on campus, we know that the profession of victimization has gone too far.

And I don’t mean to suggest that parents are the only reason for the wretched state academia finds itself in. After all, we don’t see the same type of childish tantrums thrown by (a) most students and (b) any non-students. I suspect that the tradition of the disenchanted college student that became popular in the 1960s may have a lot to do with the current situation. Many of those became perennially disenchanted college professors who are happy to convey their still-adolescent angst to a new generation.

But I also believe that parenting plays a role. That’s one reason I’m so enthusiastic about Lenore Skenazy and her “Free Range Kids” movement. Skenazy believes — and I believe she’s right — that parents who give their children appropriate freedoms are doing their kids a bigger favor than the helicopter variety hovering nearby, ever ready to prevent all possible mishaps, soothe all wounds and direct all actions.

That’s because kids need to be able to learn from their own mistakes. They need to try and fail; they need to confront daunting situations and figure out how to deal with them — or how not to. That freedom to learn, to experience, to create, to fall and rise again is vital to children’s sense of themselves, and their ability to navigate the world. It instills both confidence about their own capabilities as well as a healthy understanding of what they can’t do, or shouldn’t attempt.

It turns out Skenazy and I aren’t alone in our thoughts on the subject, as this article shows (Miami Herald, 10/17/15).

Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed a disturbing trend during her decade as a dean of freshmen at Stanford University. Incoming students were brilliant and accomplished and virtually flawless, on paper. But with each year, more of them seemed incapable of taking care of themselves.

At the same time, parents were becoming more and more involved in their children’s lives. They talked to their children multiple times a day and swooped in to personally intervene anytime something difficult happened.

From her position at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, Lythcott-Haims came to believe that mothers and fathers in affluent communities have been hobbling their children by trying so hard to make sure they succeed, and by working so diligently to protect them from disappointment and failure and hardship.

Such “overhelping” might assist children in developing impressive resumes for college admission. But it also robs them of the chance to learn who they are, what they love and how to navigate the world, Lythcott-Haims argues in her book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.”

Parents who try to shield their kids from all possible harms are setting them up for failure and anguish. A parent may be able to guide a child through the shoals of childhood, but adulthood still awaits. And no one has yet figured out how to live as an adult, free from pain, disappointment, misfortune, etc. The best anyone can do is be prepared to deal with life’s difficulties as they arise. Helicopter parents deprive their children of that competency, perhaps the most important of all.

“We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm,” she writes. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”…

[Lythcott-Haims] cites reams of statistics on the rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nation’s young people. She has seen the effects up close: Lythcott-Haims lives in Palo Alto, Calif., a community that, following a string of suicides in the past year, has undertaken a period of soul-searching about what parents can do to stem the pressure that young people face.

Of course helicopter parenting doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s avidly encouraged by child protective agencies across the country as many parents have learned to their distress. Did they let the child walk down the block to a park to play? CPS may well appear at their door with rude and threatening questions about their “neglect.” Indeed, caseworkers may “err on the side of caution,” and take the child into foster care, perhaps for months, until the parents have purged themselves of their dangerous ideas about children’s independence.

It’s a common story. The Meitiv family in Silver Spring, MD is far from the only one to have been threatened and had their privacy and their children abused by CPS and the police. Their “crime?” Allowing their children to walk home from a park not far from their home. Were the children hurt? Abducted? No. But for CPS, the mere possibility that they might have been set off alarms.

And that — the need to protect children, not just from harm, but from the possibility of it — is what helicopter parenting is all about. It’s not healthy and CPS and helicopter parents make common cause in that particular form of family dysfunction.

Needless to say, the media do their part as well. They’re always ready with the latest horror story, the better to convince us that our children, who’ve never been safer, are in constant danger.


Lythcott-Haims is one of a growing number of writers — including Jessica Lahey (“The Gift of Failure”) and Jennifer Senior (“All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”) — who are urging stressed-out helicopter parents to breathe and loosen their grip on their children.

That’s good advice. Pass it along to CPS when you get a chance.


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One reply on “Stanford Dean: Helicopter Parents Leave Kids ‘Without Will and Character’”

Look no further than stay at home mothers for why this is happening. Modern convenience has left mom with not much to do in the home. As a result, they’ve turned to their children in an effort to look busy.

Remember when kids used to go to the bus stop by themselves? Me too. Now, in my community even the high schoolers have mom parked down at the bus stop seeing them off for the day. And, no worries, they’re there to pick them up at the end of the school day, too.

Remember when all the kids actually went to school? Me too. Now we have a “home schooling” epidemic. For some mothers just getting the kids to the bus stop isn’t enough. They need to trap their kids with them at home every day. We have an army of unqualified mothers “teaching” their children.

Again, we’re having a hard time telling it like it is. We don’t have a helicopter parenting problem. We have a helicopter mothering problem. We can’t say that though. Wouldn’t want to hurt mom’s feelings.

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