Advocacy vs. “Helicopter parenting”: what’s the difference?

I’m thinking about helicopter parenting today. You know: the much-maligned, over-protective parent who does everything for their child instead of empowering their child to do…whatever it is that needs to be done. And I’m thinking about what helicopter parenting looks like when one is parenting a disabled child, and whether or not there is such a thing as helicopter parenting when one is parenting a disabled child. I’ve been advocating for my son in a number of spaces for most of his life, and I always and continue to second-guess myself: am I overstepping? Will the people on the other end of my advocacy think it’s all too much, assume I’m a helicopter parent, and dismiss me out of hand? And how–in a society with such deep tension between over-parenting (whatever that means) and neglect–do I ensure that my intended audience understands that my advocacy really is about my kid and not about me? My own anxiety over this shows me how engrained ableism is: I KNOW I need to advocate for my child, and yet I constantly question my own intentions.

Helicopter parents have gotten a bad rap lately. There’s been a lot of press about the damage helicopter parenting is doing to young adults and, by extension, the society in which they now supposedly can’t function. Here’s one from a few years ago, published on CNN, which shows how Helicopter parenting can “ruin kids’  job prospects.” According to this article in the LA Times, helicopter parenting is “ruining America’s children.” Also, if we are to believe this article in Parenting, there are many varieties of helicopter parenting and adults are going to extremes to smooth the rough edges from the experiences of their mini-mes. And all the advice out there comes down to STOP IT AND LET YOU KID LIVE THEIR OWN LIFE. That seems like simple and sound advice, and no doubt, some folks need this advice. (There are few naysayers for this now common advice. One notable exception came from Brink Linsdey, published in The Atlantic under the title “The Real Problem with Helicopter Parents: There aren’t Enough of Them.” Lindsey points out the huge class problems with this myth: among highly-educated and financially stable families, parents have leisure time to pay more and closer attention to their children than in previous generations. Among families with parents who work long hours for poor pay, attention is a luxury. A-freaking-men.)

This essay, “What’s Wrong with Helicopter Parenting?” by Dr. Gail Saltz, published in Child Mind, emphasizes the importance of facing and overcoming obstacles during childhood. The argument is simple: if a child faces obstacles and overcomes them, they will gain the confidence necessary to tackle obstacles down the road. She bases her essay on a study done at the University of Buffalo: “Researchers looked at people who had been through difficult things, and they found that, on the one hand, going through very traumatic experiences does not bode well for one’s long-term resilience, but, on the other, going through almost no difficult experiences also does not bode well for one’s resilience.” Note this phrase in particular: “going through very traumatic experiences does not bode well for one’s long-term resilience.” I’ll come back to that.

Here’s another, published in Psychology Today, which takes on Helicopter parents who go so far as to interfere in their kids’ graduate school application process. This article is particularly interested in the money angle: parents are paying the bills for graduate school and want the best deal for their money. (Parent paying for graduate school? That’s another issue, deeply wrapped in privilege, that we’ll have to save for another time.) Psychologist Michael Ungar was consulted for this article, and he’s pessimistic about what this sort of helicopter parenting means: “The point of parenting should be to grow a child who is capable of taking on adult tasks. I can fully understand coaching a child on how to fill in applications and how to deal with admissions officers. But doing that for the child is misguided and short-sighted. This is not a strategy for long-term well-being. It is always better to empower children to make good choices for themselves rather than having them remain dependent on parents to sort out problems for them.” In the end, this author argues, the students develop poor coping skills and their stress and anxiety increase because parents have overprotected them.

When I directed a graduate program at a public university, I was quite surprised when parents contacted me on behalf of their children. This happened at many stages of the application process: initial vetting of schools, during the application process, and even the interview on campus. In some cases, the parents insisted on accompanying the child adult applicant into my office and would not let the child speak. I concluded that those applicants were not good fits for my programs, and in most cases I was right. But what I don’t know is how many of those parents had to advocate for their children at some point. How many of those applicants had learning disabilities? I don’t know. Were any of those applicants neurodivergent? I don’t know. Did any of them deal with crippling anxiety on a daily basis? I don’t know.

So what about helicopter parenting of disabled children? Here’s another essay, specifically about helicopter parenting and autism. (Which makes me wonder: is this about autistic kids at all, or just about parents and some separate entity named Autism? Person-first language can be so confusing!) Even this article advocates letting kids explore life through a hard-knocks approach, cautioning parents not to overprotect their children. The essay centers on a particular boarding school, and teenagers there who, the article implies, really ought to be able to do certain things for themselves by now. “‘We will have students who can’t do anything on their own although they have IQs in the 120s,’ said Dr. Hays of Franklin Academy, a day and boarding school for students with autism spectrum disorder and nonverbal learning disability in East Haddam, Connecticut. The teens have a ‘learned helplessness,’ he said. Their parents may have battled to get services for them and to ensure they could succeed despite their challenges. After all that, it may be hard for those parents to back off and watch their kids possibly fail at something.”

For those playing at home, let me highlight just some of the ableism rampant in this one little chunk of supposedly encouraging prose. Neurodivergence means that skills–both learned and innate, intellectual as well as motor skills–are variable. They may not transfer from environment to environment. They may not be available every day. They may not be dependable from hour to hour. Shaming students with high IQs for not being able to “do anything on their own” reduces the complexity of a child’s life to what they can’t do. I don’t know anything about this school, so I’ll stop there. And I do take the point that after spending years advocating for a child to be able to participate in school, church, and other community programs, after needing to facilitate every damn experience so your child is neither excluded nor mistreated, it is hard to let go. But this isn’t about being afraid to see your kid “possibly fail.”

In the end, the attack on helicopter parents and the spreading wisdom that we need to do less for our kids lacks the nuance that Disability Justice requires. There’s really no room in this shaming for parents of kids who truly need the support. Remember that quotation from the University of Buffalo study? “…going through very traumatic experiences does not bode well for one’s long-term resilience.” We who advocate for our disabled kids do so because they have already been traumatized, and without intervention, unless we actively interfere with the behaviors of people who do not accommodate and accept our children, the traumatic cycle will continue. We who advocate for our disabled kids do so because the world is not made for them. We carve new spaces for our children where none exists. We protect them not because we want to shield them from experiences, but because the experiences they have already endured are unjust, unkind, and often inhumane. Until this world begins to accommodate and welcome disabled children (and adults!), we have no choice but to hover closely and attack when necessary.

 

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