Helicopter Parents

Helicopter parent is a colloquial, early 21st-century term for a parent who pays extremely close attention to his or her child’s or children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions.

The Toxic Paradox
Peggy Orenstein, NY Times, February 8, 2009

This article is interesting and discusses a topic I’ve considered at great length. It befuddles me that parents shelter their children from the world, because it seems to be the exact opposite of their primary responsibility.

When the potential impact of a chemical is catastrophic — cancer or birth defects — we tend to act from the gut, ignoring the actual probability of harm. I wouldn’t expect parents to have the same risk tolerance as experts. Yet, I wonder sometimes if avoiding the vinyl lunch box — I don’t care if it has “Hello Kitty” on the front — is just another blade in a helicopter parent’s propeller, another version of the overzealous monitoring that has produced kids who leave for college without ever having crossed the street by themselves. In this era when children symbolize emotional fulfillment rather than free household labor, we cling to the belief that if we just do everything right — starting with what a woman eats before she’s even pregnant — we can protect them from pain or failure or sadness. We can make them perfect and, in the process, prove ourselves beyond reproach. But of course, that control is illusory: even if it were possible to do everything “right,” it could still come out wrong. What if it wasn’t the creosote or the pesticide that gave me cancer but something even more frightening — plain old bad luck? What is a parent supposed to do about that?

I haven’t been going to the bus stop with my girls for at least a month. And they’re just fine. I even leave them at home from time to time for short periods. And they’re just fine. It is possible for something “bad” to happen to them, of course, but I don’t think the risk decreases when I’m sitting in my office. I think the independence helps their confidence.

This article reminded me of Freakonomics, a book I thoroughly enjoyed several years ago. The authors, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, argue that it is more risky to let your children go to a house with a swimming pool than it is to let them go to a house where there is a gun.

Consider the parents of an eight-year-old girl named, say, Molly. Her two best friends, Amy and Imani, each live nearby. Molly’s parents know that Amy’s parents keep a gun in their house, so they have forbidden Molly to play there. Instead, Molly spends a lot of time at Imani’s house, which has a swimming pool in the backyard. Molly’s parents feel good about having made such a smart choice to protect their daughter.

But according to the data, their choice isn’t smart at all. In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn’t even close: Molly is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident at Imani’s house than in gunplay at Amy’s.

But most of us are, like Molly’s parents, terrible risk assessors. Peter Sandman, a self-described “risk communications consultant” in Princeton, New Jersey, made this point in early 2004 after a single case of mad-cow disease in the United States prompted an antibeef frenzy. “The basic reality,” Sandman told the New York Times, “is that the risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different.”

Our collective mis-assessment of risk is the result of our lack of understanding of basic statistics. I think statistics should be a required course in every undergraduate program. If this were so we might make more intelligent and balanced decisions and raise children more prepared to tackle the adult world.

1 Comment

  1. I’m so glad we’re not “helicopter parents.” We need to allow our children the opportunities for independence, responsibility, and confidence.

    I like your excerpt from Freakanomics. Great book!

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