How Not to Helicopter

I've never bought macrobiotic cupcakes or hypoallergenic socks. Nor have I hired a tutor for pencil-holding deficiency, or put covers on the stove knobs, or used a leash on a toddler to be safe in a busy airport. At the grocery store, my kids are often in other aisles, but they've never felt lost. When they were babies, we weren't scared to leave them with babysitters. Their preschool didn't teach Mandarin, nor even worry about teaching them to read. Nor have I ever questioned a teacher about one of my children's grades.

In fact, nobody I know has done these things. The only parents I know who are superprotective are parents who have to be—and it's totally justified—because their child has Down's or Asperger's.

But like all of you, I still suspect these horror stories—while not representative of reality—shine a light on the unmistakable reality that we are not giving our kids anything like the freedom or independence we enjoyed as children when we were growing up. If we turned out fine, then why do we think our kids have to be raised so differently? This is the grand theme of Nancy Gibbs's story on the cover of Time, "Can These Parents Be Saved?"

The problem with using these horror stories to make a point is that they're not helpful in finding the right line between parenting and overparenting. Carl Honore's book Under Pressure is also filled with bad-parent stories ripped from the newspapers. Obviously it's wrong to sue a college because it did not admit your child. Obviously it's wrong for a tennis dad to spike his son's opponents' water bottles with Temesta, a drowsiness drug. Obviously it's wrong for Japanese 2-year-olds to enroll in cram schools.

As Gibbs admits deep into her article, having parents involved in children's lives is exceptionally good for children. They get better grades, drink less, use fewer drugs, etc. Backing away completely is not the answer.

So the real question is, for regular parents—normal, involved parents who are not crazy, headline-worthy overprotective freaks—in what dimensions do we need to back off?

We think our book NurtureShock, and our column here, have already noted many areas where good parents are going too far. Here's a summary of those points, in some cases with additional commentary:

  • Praise them less, and help them develop accurate awareness of how well they're doing—so don't try to spin them into believing they're better than they are.
  • Protect their sleep hours fiercely.
  • When young children hurt each other's feelings, give them a chance to come back together on their own. You might not see apologies or overt repair, but scientists are learning that repair can be implicitly implied when kids end up side by side again.
  • Choose schools that don't assign too much homework (more than an hour in middle school is too much), and the schools will finally get the message.
  • Protect play time, and as children mature, help make sure they still have outlets for fantasy.
  • By the time a child is 11, don't encourage or expect her to tell you everything. Some things need to be none of your business. Set a few rules and enforce them, but in other domains encourage independence and autonomy.
  • Teens need opportunities to take good risks. They need more exposure to other adults, and even kids of other ages—and less exposure to teens exactly their age. They need part of their life to feel real, not just a dress rehearsal for college. They will mature more quickly if these elements are in their life.
  • Colleges have gotten better. It's harder today to get into the top 30 name-brand colleges, because so many kids apply, but the next 70 colleges are now just as good as the top 30 were when you went to college, and the next 100 are darn good too. Care about your child's education, not the notoriety of the name printed on his college sweatshirt.