Is That the Whir of Helicopter Blades? On Lavish Maternal Love vs. Overbearing Control

Is That the Whir of Helicopter Blades? On Lavish Maternal Love vs. Overbearing Control March 25, 2013

I had dinner the other night with my play group/moms’ group/book group. We are a bunch of late 30s to early 50s moms who met at a local community center when we each had our first child, 13 years ago. We spent years gathering on Friday mornings at each others’ homes for bagels, coffee, and rampant mess-making on our children’s part while we talked. When our kids’ school schedules and our work schedules got too complicated for that, we switched to regular girls’ nights out and book club meetings, and occasional weekend trips to coastal Maine. This group is remarkable, for sticking together for so long, and for the fact that, despite some big differences in vocation, religious beliefs, and upbringing, we tend to see the world through similar lenses.

We spent some time last night engaging in one of our favorite (not terribly savory) activities: rolling our eyes at the antics of many of our fellow parents in our high-achieving suburb. A few of the choicer gems from last night’s discussion:

  • A mom at a meeting about potential changes to our school calendar (changing traditional spring/winter vacations so that multiple snow days don’t leave the kids in school through late June) complained, “It’s really hard to plan family vacations when you have one child in private school and one in public school, and their school vacations are different.” While I’m sure this is a real concern, most families can afford neither a family beach or ski vacation every year, nor private school tuition.
  • At any meeting I’ve attended for parents of gifted kids, parents complain that their child’s teacher doesn’t do enough to ensure that he or she gets extra work and challenge. Again, while this concern is genuine, a child with parents concerned with and involved in their education likely has enrichment resources at home (computers, music lessons and science camp, parents who take them to museums and the theater, lots of books). Many teachers in our mixed-income school system have 24 or more students in their classroom, some with special needs or high needs, and some without much support at home. Justice and fairness requires that teachers spend “extra” time (I’m sure any teachers reading this just had a good laugh at that) helping struggling students who don’t have involved parents, or average students who might flourish if offered some special attention or incentives.
  • Parents at one school were up in arms when told their children could not have water bottles on their desks during statewide standardized testing. This meant that their children would be unable to get a drink of water for somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes.

The latter two examples in particular are examples of what we call “helicopter parenting”—supposedly a hallmark of my generation of parents. We micromanage every aspect of our children’s lives, down to when they drink water. We expect our special little snowflakes to get personalized attention from every adult in their lives. We shield them from disappointment, boredom, inconvenience, and even thirst.

Oh those silly parents. I would never do such things.

Fast forward to the following morning. It had been a too-full, crazed week of dinners eaten on the fly and afternoons when I spent two or three hours nonstop in my minivan, picking up and dropping off children at various places. Friday is pizza day at my kids’ school, and while I know they don’t much like the school pizza, I didn’t feel like making lunches, so I decided they could just deal with mediocre pizza for lunch.

I got an email from my seven-year-old’s teacher saying that when he discovered there was no lunch in his backpack, and that even the sandwich choices on today’s school menu aren’t something he likes (he is a PB&J guy through and through), he got upset, to the point of tears. The teacher said she normally wouldn’t email a parent over something like this, but tears on my son’s part are unusual. He’s normally a “go with the flow” kid at school.

While I normally wouldn’t bring a lunch into school for any of my kids, for any reason, I decided that I would. I had consciously chosen to ignore the fact that he never likes to buy lunch on pizza day. I also knew that tears and complaints are not normal for him at school; he is known among teachers and kids as a child with stellar behavior. And I knew that he was wound up with anxiety and anticipation for his singing performance scheduled for that evening’s talent show. I decided that a show of lavish maternal love, in the form of my delivering his favorite lunch to his classroom, was in order.

And then I wondered if I was hearing the whirring of helicopter blades in the distance. Was I becoming one of those moms, desperate to clear any inconvenience and disappointment out of my children’s lives? Unwilling to let them learn the hard way that we can’t always get what we want?

Maybe. Yes, probably. It certainly wasn’t the first time I chose to do something because I didn’t want one of my children to be disappointed—and didn’t want to be the target of their whining or complaining.

But I was also aware that my primary motivation, in this case, was not a desire to save my child from disappointment or myself from his complaint. Rather, my primary motivation was to dry his tears, and to do something special on his big talent show day. I wanted him to know, on that day in particular, that he has a mom who will sacrifice her own agenda (a long list of writing projects and tasks I hoped to get done that morning) if I can ease his way with some small gesture.

When I stepped into his classroom, puppy lunchbox filled with PB&J, yogurt, and a few precious blueberries from the organic co-op delivery I got last night, I was met by his surprised, delighted smile. He rushed over, gave me a huge hug and kiss (in front of his whole class, no less), and said, “You’re the best mom!”

Helicopter mom? Perhaps. This time, though, I prefer to think of myself as a mom who wants her children to know what it feels like to be delighted by spontaneous, heartfelt acts of generous, sacrificial love. I hope that the result is not that they become complacent, spoiled kids who expect every inconvenience to be cleared from their path, but rather become people capable of offering others the same kind of lavish love they receive.


If you’d like to see my seven-year-old rocking Katy Perry at the school talent show, here’s the video (posted with his permission).


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