This is just too much…

By Mickey Goodman:

But why have parents shifted from teaching self-reliance to becoming hovering helicopter parents who want to protect their children at all costs?

“I think it began in the fall of 1982, when seven people died after taking extra-strength Tylenol laced with poison after it left the factory,” he says. Halloween was just around the corner, and parents began checking every item in the loot bags. Homemade brownies and cookies (usually the most coveted items) hit the garbage; unwrapped candy followed close behind.

That led to an obsession with their children’s safety in every aspect of their lives. Instead of letting them go outside to play, parents filled their kid’s spare time with organized activities, did their homework for them, resolved their conflicts at school with both friends and teachers, and handed out trophies for just showing up.

“These well-intentioned messages of ‘you’re special’ have come back to haunt us,” Elmore says. “We are consumed with protecting them instead of preparing them for the future. We haven’t let them fall, fail and fear. The problem is that if they don’t take risks early on like climbing the monkey bars and possibly falling off, they are fearful of every new endeavor at age 29.”

Where did we go wrong?

• We’ve told our kids to dream big – and now any small act seems insignificant. In the great scheme of things, kids can’t instantly change the world. They have to take small, first steps – which seem like no progress at all to them. Nothing short of instant fame is good enough. “It’s time we tell them that doing great things starts with accomplishing small goals,” he says.

• We’ve told our kids that they are special – for no reason, even though they didn’t display excellent character or skill, and now they demand special treatment. The problem is that kids assumed they didn’t have to do anything special in order to be special.

• We gave our kids every comfort – and now they can’t delay gratification. And we heard the message loud and clear. We, too, pace in front of the microwave, become angry when things don’t go our way at work, rage at traffic. “Now it’s time to relay the importance of waiting for the things we want, deferring to the wishes of others and surrendering personal desires in the pursuit of something bigger than ‘me,'” Elmore says.

• We made our kid’s happiness a central goal – and now it’s difficult for them to generate happiness — the by-product of living a meaningful life. “It’s time we tell them that our goal is to enable them to discover their gifts, passions and purposes in life so they can help others. Happiness comes as a result.”



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  • Matt

    Great thoughts on developing character and skills for life. Have to be careful on the whole “being” and “doing” thing. Created in God’s image, we are special. But like Jesus didn’t play the “I’m special” card based on His identity, we need to teach our kids to serve (Philippians 2) and work hard (Acts 20:35).

  • RJS

    Linking this to the Tylenol scare seems to me an unwarranted stretch capitalizing on sensationalism. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that big an event.

  • Norman

    It proably has more to do with having fewer children and not wanting to risk the idea of huge investments with scarce resources. I hate to put it that way but 80 years ago in my parents generation large numbers of children were more the norm and some were lost in childbirth, disease and ect. The world has just changed before our very eyes as we baby boomers have grown up. One or two children while anticipating their need for a college education and beyond simply changes the way we look at our children now.

  • Thank you. This is so many conversations between my wife and I as we observe what’s going on, and this paragraph is practically word for word something we said recently:

    “These well-intentioned messages of ‘you’re special’ have come back to haunt us,” Elmore says. “We are consumed with protecting them instead of preparing them for the future. We haven’t let them fall, fail and fear. The problem is that if they don’t take risks early on like climbing the monkey bars and possibly falling off, they are fearful of every new endeavor at age 29.”

  • Susan N.

    Thanks, Scot. This article, in spite of some flimsy (somewhat strange) arguments, makes an essentially valid point, which is encouraging to me as a parent.

    “Happiness” is not the ultimate goal.

    Developing the character strengths of integrity and perseverance, with a solid work ethic (do your best, be responsible and dependable, honest, and willing to face up to challenges) are important goals in our educational and parenting “mission.”

    Oh boy, having the ability to deal with failure… It is simply not reality that everything should or will come easily, or, that we will succeed at everything we do. We confront that reality almost daily, I don’t know about you. 🙂

    Kids don’t necessarily learn the right lessons by trial and error. And we parents are unwise to leave this training solely to others (church, school, other clubs or programs, cultural messages, and especially peer-to-peer indoctrination). We are grateful for other positive mentors and experiences in the larger world that our children have benefited from. And there have been many over the years.

    I was in a position growing up which required me to be self-sufficient and independent from a very young age, and carry a lot of burdens on my own, because my parents were not “there” to help me. My grandparents were in and out, as much as they were able (and allowed to “interfere”). It just was not good; I did the best I could, but it wasn’t the ideal outcome, by any means.

    The extreme view that kids will learn on their own, if we adults just step aside and let them figure out their own answers by making mistakes is a flawed notion, if I’ve ever heard one. There’s some good truth in allowing room for independent choices and consequences to fall onto our children, according to their age and abilities. But articles like this take a good idea to a bizarre extreme. Wheeee — fun times. 😉

    There are a whole range of views and approaches to parenting and teaching out there. Some I agree with, and many others I don’t. I have made it my business to know my children and respond to their specific needs at any particular time in their growth and development with all that I have. If I don’t have “it,” I seek outside resources. We’re not perfect, but I hope that when my children “launch”, they will be decent, caring, strong, resilient people who live and do their work with integrity.

    Do we need more leaders? I certainly want my children to be able to think for themselves and resist simply going with the flow, when the flow is going nowhere good.

    I think we need more servant-hearted folks in the world. These are few and far between, it would seem. Everyone wants to be a “leader” and “succeed.”

    Do you ever get the feeling that the questions posed are not even the right questions that we should be asking?


  • Michelle

    As a product of the “dream big dreams and change the world” generation who has chosen to stay home and raise kids, I often wish that the value of everyday service had been emphasized more in my upbringing. Even though my parents support me and validate my choice, it’s hard to get over the ingrained notion that nothing less than a stellar career is acceptable.

  • JohnM

    I would echo Matt (#1) on whole “being” and “doing” thing, with the added observation that nobody is really all THAT special, I don’t care if they have done “great things”.

    Are parents for some reason living vicariously through their children now more than ever? How much of the helicoptering is really for the kids?

  • Pointing to the Tylenol case is probably too specific. But add to it, the rash of day care child abuse cases (virtually all of which were shown later to be false), high profile stranger kidnapping cases (which have always been exceedingly rare), the rise of the cable news networks and more ‘investigative’ news programs like 60 minutes. So I would blame it not on the tylenol case, but on media.

    I am not quite 40. But I know my parents got flake from their friends because they let me be too independent. I moved away from college and with one exception of 8 weeks between my Sophomore and Junior years of college never moved back. Went to college with some, but not a lot of parent’s financial help. Incurred a ton of student debt. Married half way through grad school to a wonderful wife with no student debt.

    And my life is peachy 🙂

    Seriously, I do think that there is a real issue with fear in this world and our own Christian media feeds into it instead of preaches against it. This is not just a problem outside the church. If anything it is a bigger problem inside. There is a serious lack of trust in God and a serious misunderstanding of what we can control and what we cannot.

  • Jag

    My daughter is moving into her dorm at boarding school on her 16th birthday. It’s her own decision and one she’s excited about. But I am truly shocked by the number of parents who tell me they would not let their child go, not because they feel the kid couldn’t handle it but because they would miss them too much. One of my best friends actually paid his daughter to attend college in state so she’d be closer to the family!

  • AHH

    I think it is less a shift than an intensification of something that was already there. My mother was overprotective (though maybe not by today’s standards) well before 1982.

    Adam Shields has a good point about the role of media in making it seem like horrible danger lurks around every corner. Add to that the role of the church — both in promoting fear of the rampant evil in the world (Satanic abuse, Harry Potter, public schools, science, etc.) and in making children the idols of “family”-focused church culture. Add to that schools that foster the risk-averse mentality, perhaps due to fear of lawsuits.

  • Susan N.

    I’m mildly intrigued by the posted article, and by the ensuing discussion…

    Two terms, with either a positive or negative connotation–depending on the ideological POV of a person, come to mind:

    Rugged individualism,
    “Lone Ranger”

    What conditions do you think create such individuals?

    I don’t think the ill effects of societal pressure on our children, teens, and young adults is exaggerated. Kids from all socio-economic levels are affected.

    Alcohol and drug use, eating disorders, sex, and violence are not uncommon. I think our kids are breaking under the pressure. Kids from “good” families. Are these necessary and valuable rites of passage?

    For all the kids in the lower rungs of the socio-economic brackets, if tough survival conditions produced stellar results, wouldn’t we see more success stories coming up and out of poverty and its all-encompassing oppressive circumstances? Few make it out; most are stuck for life in the cycle.

    I’m almost afraid to find out what some here will make of that…

  • DRT

    Clearly individual situations vary greatly.

    But I see the trend loud and clear. We let our kids, more of less, sink or swim with their schoolwork in 7th grade. No more reminders etc. They all took to it quite well.

    But I am a sucker for giving the kids money. As a result, none of them have really worked a job, and I regret that.

    But they are all independent minded and responsible, mostly.

    It was still a big step with my oldest going to college. He commented that this is the first time in his life that he makes his own impression independent of our family.

  • Camassia

    The Halloween-candy scare goes back to the 1970s; I personally remember that. Apparently in 1974 a child died of poisoned Halloween candy, but it turned out to have come from his own father(!). As to the larger issue, I don’t have children so I don’t have strong opinions about modern parenting. But I do notice that while the parenting guru here advises letting children fail, he’s still basically playing on ambitious parents’ fears of failure: “What you’re doing now will make your kids fail! But if you listen to me, they will ultimately succeed!” And I also notice that society’s high premium on achievement and individualism gets regularly critiqued from a Christian standpoint elsewhere on this site.

  • Deets

    I would argue that each child is special with special gifts and abilities. The problem is wether any needs special treatment

  • John

    After reading articles like these, I am clearly a failure as a parent. Seriously.

  • Diane

    I would place helicopter parenting in the context of Princess Diana and the birth of her sons in the early 1980s. She was openly all about amending her own neglected childhood by making her children the center of the universe–and ordinary people followed suit. Of course, her children WERE/ARE royalty, a fact other parents seem to forget in light of their own offspring.

    I agree with what the writer of this blog piece says. But how to get the message out more broadly?

  • I really think this sort of thing has less to do with the news than it does with the childrearing trends. The folks from WWII tended to raise their children in an authoritarian style, perhaps due in part to their wartime experiences. Their children reacted to the overly strict style, because they often felt misunderstood and uncared for. So they raised their kids in a rather permissive way and schools became places where the imperative was that children feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, in many cases not much actual learning took place. So the next generation wanted to exert more control, which taken to the logical extreme becomes helicopter parenting. We are due for another swing any time. You’ll know it’s happening when they go back to actually letting kids repeat grades/classes when they fail to learn enough.