God is Not a Helicopter Parent

God is Not a Helicopter Parent July 25, 2023

Every teacher knows about helicopter parents. Most of us, teacher or not, intuitively know what helicopter parenting is; here’s a definition produced by my research assistant Google from one of the dozens of relevant online sites:

Helicopter parenting most often applies to parents who help high school or college-aged students with tasks they’re capable of doing alone (for instance, calling a professor about poor grades, arranging a class schedule, or managing exercise habits).

For Baby Boomers who are still young enough to remember their childhood and adolescence, helicopter parenting is a relatively new phenomenon. Whatever we might say about our parents, they did not helicopter. At all.

Interestingly, many sources identify Boomers themselves as the first generation of helicopter parents. The phrase gained currency in the early 2000s as the oldest millennials began reaching college age. Baby-boomer parents earned notoriety for practices such as calling their children each morning to wake them up for class and complaining to their professors about grades the children had received. Summer camp officials have also reported similar behavior from these parents. I want to push back a bit against this stereotype, since I have two sons born right at the transition point from Gen X to millennial who went to college, I don’t recall helicoptering over them at all (although they might claim otherwise).

In short, helicopter parents seek to hover over the daily lives of their children in any number of ways, seeking to ensure that their children are on a path to success by paving that path for them. I encountered lots of these parents when I directed a large interdisciplinary program required of all students on my campus a decade or so ago for four years. Such parents were never pleased when I told them that by law I could not disclose any information about their daughter or son—even though the parents had often spent many thousands of dollars for their child to be at my college—without their daughter’s or son’s written permission (which never seemed to be forthcoming). Helicopter parents annoyed me not only because their 18–19-year-old daughters and sons were more than capable of handling daily issues on campus and in class themselves, but also because I have always been the opposite of a helicopter parent myself.

Until now, that is. As I described in my most recent post, our four-legged daughter Bovina, who as I have frequently noted on this blog in the last year and a half is the focus and love of Jeanne’s and my lives, is away at “board and train” finishing school dog camp for the month of July. Thank God that the end of July is within sight because Jeanne and I have not been handling this well. We fortunately were away for four days in Asheville NC with our oldest son Caleb and daughter-in-law Alisha early in the month and are currently in the middle of a week visiting younger son Justin in Colorado, because being home in between the two trips for 10 days without “herself” (as we often refer to Bovina) in the house was very rough.

We dropped Bovina off at finishing school on July 3rd, the day before we headed to Asheville to rendezvous with Caleb and Alisha the next day. Dog trainer and finisher Courtney, at whose establishment Bovina is spending July, promised us weekly report cards on herself’s progress, encouraging us also to send emails with questions throughout the month that Bovina is away. Courtney noticeably did not invite us to drop by the facility unannounced during the month—that would be helicopter parenting.

But twelve hours after we dropped Bovina off, I emailed Courtney with the passive-aggressive suggestion that we would be “really happy” if she would provide us with frequent updates, pictures, and so on—which she promised she would do, mentioning also that Bovina had been the “life of the party” during her first day and that she had “a very good adjustment day.” No pictures.

While in Asheville three days later, I emailed Courtney once again asking how Bovina was doing, noting that we were still away. “but are thinking about her and missing her all the time.” No response. Crickets. Twenty-four hours later, while at brunch on the morning of the day we were returning to Providence, Jeanne asked if I had heard from Courtney. I said that I had not and suggested that Jeanne should perhaps send the next email.

She did on the spot, and within a couple of hours we had both Bovina’s first report card and a couple of pictures of her clearly having a wonderful time. “Nice,” I said—”I get nothing when I ask for an update and Courtney responds to you within two hours.” “I was pretty direct in my email,” Jeanne replied. I didn’t see Jeanne’s email but wouldn’t be at all surprised if it began “Look, bitch, . . . .”

You get the point. Courtney has clearly recognized that she has helicopter parents on her hands and although she hasn’t voluntarily sent any pictures or videos, she has quickly responded to our requests—usually no more than three days apart—for such proof-of-life-and-happiness evidence. We will be retrieving Bovina from board-and-train finishing school just a few short days after we return from Colorado, so the end of our Bovina-less purgatory is in sight.

As much as many of us are amused or appalled (or both) at helicopter parents, many persons of faith—me included, at least on occasion—would love for God, whomever or whatever God is, to be a helicopter parent. As much as we claim to love freedom and autonomy, along with the responsibility of choice that goes with them, there is a place in which every person of faith wants the divine to show up, make all of the decisions for us, guarantee that everything will work out for the best, and put all of our enemies to shame for good measure.

There are some scriptural texts which, taken at face value and out of context, sound as if God is actually going to do that. But God’s strategy is far less overt and far more insidious—the divine chooses instead to get into the world through flawed and often clueless human beings. God isn’t going to show up to set everything straight that we have messed up. It’s as if God is a parent who has sent the kids of to college with the expectation that we will make mistakes, fall flat on our faces, learn from the errors, and become more and more the presence of God in the world. That’s a lot of trust on God’s part and responsibility on ours. Can we handle it?

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