The Helicopter Effect

Helicopter Parent
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Would you call 999 if you saw a mouse in your college accommodation? Two US students did; and not only that, but they requested counseling for post traumatic stress disorder.

Peter Gray argues that similar events are becoming more common. He writes:

[Because of ‘helicopter parenting’ we] have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention.

As teachers, I’m sure we all have tales of the ‘helicopter parents from hell’, but there seems to be something more going on than a few unrealistically demanding parents: there has been a veritable seismic shift in societal attitudes that has occurred over the course of a lifetime. Parents and families seem to be exerting more control over children’s lives. The default setting seems to have moved from the caring, loving but essentially “light touch” supervision of my childhood to what amounts to a species of neurotic control freakery.

My own free range childhood was similar to that described by Jerry Coyne in a thoughtful blog post commenting on Gray’s piece.

When I was a kid of 10 or so, I was allowed to walk to school on my own and, after school, ride my bike over to my friends’ houses, where we’d then take off in juvenile packs to explore our surroundings. There was no adult supervision save the order that we be home by dinner. That not only doesn’t happen any more, but parents who permit such roaming can (and have been) arrested.

And are schools and teachers contributing to this change?

I would say yes, some of the time.

One example is the question “Have you called home?” This is a very common one in my school and is frequently an entirely legitimate response to many issues. (It’s completely my own fault that it makes me smile because it reminds me of the Lewis Carroll line “And hast thou slain the jabberwock?”)

However, I do question its over-use with older students, particularly A-level students. In a perfect world, the conversation should be between the student and the teacher, not via the parent.

But shouldn’t we keep the parents informed, you ask? Well, yes, obviously. But not over-informed about each little tic and twitch.

And surely “I’ll tell on you to your Mum!” is a consequence that has the effect of tying the apron strings more tightly, rather than loosening them?

Let me emphasise that that I am not opposed to calling home per se, just that I think that we over use this consequence with older students.

Broadly speaking, I suppose that I am in favour of increasing the freedom of young people. Including, in the end, the freedom to fail.

You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.
— Lord Vetinari from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal