Helicopter parents beware the illusion of control

Saturday, October 17th, 2009




Helicopter parents monitor and advocate in all details of their children’s lives well into young adulthood.  So when Lenore Skenazy wrote in her column (for the New York Sun) that she let her 9-year-old son travel home by himself on the subway in New York, she sparked a controversy that led to her creation of the website “Free Range Kids” and a book by the same title released last Spring. (Note this blog posted is adapted from a story in Banana Moments Spring 2009 quarterly edition).

So much of the conversation in response to Skenazy’s tale of her child’s independent trip to get back to her Manhattan home from a department store on the Upper East Side, involved serious criticism countered by acclaim and applause in her defense. In response to the criticism, (some people accusing her of being an irresponsible and neglectful parent) her Free Range Kids blog states: “At Free Range Kids, we believe in safe kids. We believe in helmets, car seats and safety belts. We do NOT believe that every time school-age children go outside, they need a security detail.”

Skenazy’s perspective touches upon a truth that “parental control” is an illusion.

Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry


 Control Perception: Problem versus Predicament

Some of the best lessons in parenting I gleaned from my experience as a business executive. During the Y2K transition, I was tasked with heading up a global support service operation for publishing systems. And the company I worked for, as with many technology firms, had a resource crisis to conduct the Y2K support and routine maintenance. One of the most helpful concepts to lead global operations through this crisis I found in the book, Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson (1996,Touchstone, NY) which advocated to business leaders that control is an illusion, and argued that managers too often tried to exert control by solving problems when not everything is a problem to be solved.kids_solving_problems

 Farson presented an important distinction between a problem and a predicament. A problem could be solved; a predicament required coping because there is not a solution possible. So with this understanding among the clients and the staff we managed Y2K situation as a temporary crisis – it was a predicament, not a problem; and everyone agreed to shift resources to Y2K as a coping mechanism through the transition into 2000. We did not loose a single client or any support revenues. And yet had we treated the Y2K resource constraint as a problem to be solved, we would have failed – there was no “solution” possible under those circumstances.


Baby Navigating Stairs:

Predicament or Problem?

baby-crawlingLet’s examine a more germane example. When my youngest was an infant, we had moved into a two-story home. Rather than set up gates to keep him from falling, I supervised, instructed and coached my infant son to crawl down the stairs on his stomach, feet first. He never experienced a spill down the stairs at our home or anywhere else for lack of skill and knowledge. Had I relied upon the gate as “the solution” to keep him safe, the chances of him having a serious accident were greater—that the gate would not be securely latched, or worse yet, he could have fallen down stairs somewhere else because there were no gates (we cannot baby proof every environment).  The worry of the baby falling down the stairs was a temporary situation that did not require him to walk; it did require him to use whatever means he could master to navigate stairs safely. While I am not advising parents to not use gates (there may be reasons why you need to use them)—this example demonstrates that it is also important that your child is able to master safety for herself wherever possible, as early as possible.


Why Do Parents Hover into the

Young Adulthood of their Child?



It is my view that Helicopter Parents are the end-result of the child rearing process wherein we become caught in a mode of always solving problems and eventually, by the time our children are in college, we have become the solution—in pursuit of more control. Are you becoming “the solution” for your child? If so, you will demonstrate the following conduct when your child is in college: 

  • You regularly call to wake your student up for class
  • You are in constant contact with school administration
  • You have your student’s schedule posted on your fridge and regularly call to see that they are going to class
  • You still help your student with their homework and/or papers for class
  • You make your child’s academic decisions
  • You accompany your child to job interviews.

(Source: College Board)

So how do we define the line between being proactive and overbearing?

Mary McCall, Professor of Psychology at St. Mary’s College (Moraga, CA), urges parents to adopt “co-regulation” as a strategy. A mother of a 22-year-old and a 17-year-old, she knows all too well the anxiety of letting go of control. “I can remember being afraid to take my older son to preschool because I wouldn’t be able to be there if and when something ‘bad’ might happen. What if he decided to climb on the monkey bars and fall off? What if he didn’t participate well enough to make it into the next school that would, I’m sure, set his path to all that is good for the rest of his life,” recollects McCall. What McCall ultimately discovered is that she would not really want to be there at all times for her children because they needed to be able to do for themselves. So McCall read about healthy parenting and discovered “co-regulation” wherein parents take a less active role in regulating every single thing about a child’s life as they grow up so that they can start to regulate themselves.

 As a college professor, McCall witnesses on a daily basis the consequences of helicopter parenting and she has to deal with many of these parents. “Students cannot choose their own classes, cannot articulate their interests and passions, only what their parents have told them they are interested in (or should be interested in)”, explains McCall. “When I have a parent call me to ask how their student is doing in my class, I have to wonder a few things: 1) are they not talking with their son/daughter about how they are doing in my class? 2) if their child is not telling them, what would the information coming from me accomplish? 


joanna-0071May all your “banana moments” be rewarding as well as challenging.

Joanna Jullien jullien@surewest.net

Joanna married her high school sweetheart and over the  past 25 years they have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from UC Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture) and has over 20 years experience as a professional manager in information technology, manufacturing, energy and environment.  Joanna writes on parenting in the 21st century, as she has observed and personally experienced many strains on the parent-child relationship with the advent of the Internet, mobile phones and popular culture.

Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved

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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna (jullien@surewest.net) and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.