If you bridle at the many advice columns written by and for overinvolved parents, you might want to skip this and stick to dotCommonweal’s usual roster of world events and philosophical inquiries. I want to say a few things—partly confessional—about helicopter parenting, and you might not find them interesting, except perhaps as self-incrimination (mine, that is).
There are plenty of self-diagnostic tests parents can take to “find out” if they are helicopter parents. But the two prominent symptoms are 1) omnipresence, and 2) interference: you want to be there all the time in your child’s life, and you want to fix everything. These are the errors that serve parents up as objects of well-deserved mockery. For instance... University of Georgia administrator Richard Mullendore reported some years back on a student who woke up one morning to discover that her dorm lacked hot water. She called her father, a Georgia bank president, and by 8 AM he had already called Mullendore. (Such excesses are facilitated, Mullendore observed, by what he called “the world’s longest umbilical cord”—the cell phone.) Closer to home, a friend of mine who’s an executive with a large company tells me that it is now far from uncommon for a young college grad to show up in his office for a job interview, accompanied by... guess who?
Nobody wants to be that parent. Nor does anyone want to be the Bragging Mom or Bragging Dad. A friend of mine with grownup children emailed to ask, “why does the helicopter generation of parents think it's okay to brag incessantly about one's kids? We used to make them milk the cows. Now we can't discuss them without blabbing on about their prowess in Whatever.”
It’s true. And along with blabbing and bragging comes doting: loving your child so much, you can’t let go. Most of my friends have kids in college, and one of my bêtes noires is their frequency of contact with them via texting, emailing, etc. When I implicitly suggest that daily contact—often multiple-times-daily contact—with your twenty-year-old might not be the sine qua non of parental best practices, they smirk and say, Wait till your daughter’s in college!
Well, I guess I’ll see. Right now she’s only nine. I believe that my wife and I have mostly managed not to be omnipresent fixers in Larkin’s life. As for bragging, I try to restrain myself. When it comes to doting, well, um, maybe less so. But a less well-publicized aspect of helicopter parenting is overattentiveness—giving more minute scrutiny to one’s child’s life than perhaps it deserves or needs. And here, I have realized of late, I’m guilty.
Our daughter has a cousin with whom she’s hypercompetitive. It’s the situation, familiar to all parents, in which one child has better stuff, more freedoms, etc., and parades these advantages while the other child (ours, in this case) desperately tries to keep up. Things came to a head on a weeklong family vacation recently, when the girls kept squabbling. Molly and I discussed it the situation extensively. Why was Larkin, normally pretty confident in her friendships, so insecure in this one instance? And what role was her cousin playing in that? What exactly was her motive, for instance, in mentioning that she liked to play games on her Smartphone every night until 10 PM? Was she trying to put Larkin down (no digital device, early bedtime), or was she just being innocuously factual? Why and how did one girl assume power, and the other acquiesce to it?
We monitored the interaction, keeping tabs. There came a night when Larkin finally broke down and sobbed to us that her cousin was being mean to her and she was sick of it. We gave her some advice, calmed her down, then put her to bed and retreated to the porch for the postmortem. Was this a turning point?, we wondered. Would Larkin incorporate some of this recognition into her dealings with her cousin come morning, or would it be business as usual? And so on, for at least half an hour. Finally we paused. “Do you think our parents had conversations like this about us?” I asked Molly.
We laughed. We were both certain they had not. Theirs was a generation of parents who’d discuss their kids when something went seriously wrong, but otherwise they were hands-off. And certainly never this kind of fine-grained analysis. “We didn’t have time for chewing and rechewing every single thing the way you all do,” my father, now 87, likes to say. In fact, our willingness to discuss our child’s experiences at length is one aspect in which we have tended to feel that we are being better parents than ours were—more attentive, more reflective, more potentially helpful.
Well, each generation gets to fashion its own errors in reaction to the errors of its parents. This truth forms the theme of the most famous poem written by our daughter’s namesake, Philip Larkin—the tartly irreverent, drolly titled “This Be the Verse,” whose dour advice begins with these deathless opening couplets:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
I thought about the way Molly and I discuss Larkin’s daily life and dilemmas, inspecting them from various angles, assessing seemingly slight events and utterances for their nuances and implications. It all seemed so literary. All this analyzing and interpreting, it occurred to me, amounts to reading your child and her life as a kind of text—specifically, a short story. In a short story, slight shades of tone, small moments and movements, can have large reverberations. Short fiction is a miniaturist’s world. A novel, on the other hand, of necessity contains relative lulls, passages where nothing terribly important is happening, and everyone—writer, reader and character alike—is gathering strength for the real, defining crises to come. In a novel characters can be left, as it were, to find their own fates in the long sweep of events, without constant intensities of meaning, without every single moment mattering so much.
Maybe the literary-minded helicopter parent can take a cue. Life is long, God willing, and it needs not merely to be analyzed or even understood, but to be lived. So if you have to treat your child’s life like a text, make it a novel, not a short story. And certainly not a poem.
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