Saturday, July 10, 2010

Helicopter Moms

As concepts go, helicopter mothers is less apposite than Mama Grizzlies.

Both describe mothers who are highly protective of their cubs, but only Mama Grizzlies offers a picture that will allow you to understand the concept accurately.

If the concept grasped the phenomenon, helicopter mothers would be hovering over their children like levitating yogis. They would be looking down on them with benign affection, sometimes dropping a lifeline, sometimes descending to earth to help them with a problem.

But that is not what is meant by helicopter mothering. The term refers to hypervigilant mothers who are directly and excessively involved in every aspect of their children's lives.

These mothers do not hover; they have landed, right in the middle of their children's lives.

Helicopter mothers watch television with their children, look through their computer and texting activities, monitor their homework, and organize every aspect of their social lives.

It may appear that these mothers are smothering their children, but they are really protecting them. As some commentators have explained, they often have very good reason for doing so.

To the point where their children are being deprived of the ability to make their own decisions, to take responsibility for their mistakes, and to exercise their freedom.

Their children do not know how to get to school on their own; they do not have the freedom to hang out with friends after school; they do not really have the option of choosing their friends.

No one is criticizing helicopter mothers, any more than anyone is criticizing Mama Grizzlies. Considering the dangers and challenges these children face, it is not surprising-- we would do better to say that it feels normal-- for mothers to be very vigilant and very involved in their children's lives.

It's not optimal, but it may be the best that many mothers can do under trying circumstances.

This does not mean that they like being helicopter mothers, or that they would rather not feel less stressed about the situation.

They would... unfortunately, that is not an immediate option.

So, when Lisa Belkin says that these women are riddled with guilt, anxiety, and determination about their mothering skills, she is identifying an important psychocultural phenomenon. Link here.

Belkin has asked herself the question of how we got to this point, and she was particularly struck by a comment made by one AB in the comments section of her New York Times column. See link above.

I too was struck by AB's brilliant insight. She does a quick cross cultural analysis and explains that helicopter mothering seems more indigenous to heterogeneous American cultures than to homogeneous European cultures. It is, in her view, especially prevalent in the most heterogeneous culture, that of New York City.

Helicopter parenting, she suggests, is the price of social mobility and diversity. It occurs in communities like New York where everyone has landed from somewhere else, where there is very little uniformity of customs and manners and mores.

It is the price of social anomie.

With so many of your child's friends coming from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds, the normal reaction is distrust, especially when you are responsible for protecting someone who is young and vulnerable.

In a homogeneous community, a mother has very likely grown up in a community, knows everyone in it, feels a level of trust, and will normally allow her child more freedom of movement and choice. She will be less concerned if her child is late from school and will rely less on organized activities.

In the absence of a homogeneous community, mothers are more likely to feel the need to get directly involved in every aspect of their children's lives.

In a city like New York, where children grow up in an extremely heterogeneous culture, parents try to find an island of homogeneity by sending their children to private schools.

If you haven't lived in New York you will find it difficult to grasp how wrapped up mothers become in trying to get their children into these schools. The schools provide a superb education within a cultural environment that parents feel they can trust.

The brutality of the vetting process inspires trust, and justifies, in the minds of many parents, the expense of private education.

Some blame this on American competitiveness-- as though there is anything wrong with being competitive-- but the truth, for most helicopter parents in New York, is that everyone wants the best for their children.

And private schools are not only better, they insist on a very strict work ethic, and offer the opportunity for children to engage in fair competition.

At the prices that these schools charge, they cannot indulge the pathological obsession with self-esteem and diversity.

Upper middle class New Yorkers embrace diversity, until it comes to their own children. They happily affirm their commitment to a culture of self-esteem, until it enters their children's classrooms.

Thus, they overcome the stress of helicopter mothering through the private school system.

13 comments:

Cappy said...

Why don't they just move to a suburb with a good school system?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Many of them do move to the suburbs where they find homogeneous communities and good school systems.

I had neglected to mention the point. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Mark said...

Stuart, you say:

No one is criticizing helicopter mothers, any more than anyone is criticizing Mama Grizzlies. Considering the dangers and challenges these children face, it is not surprising-- we would do better to say that it feels normal-- for mothers to be very vigilant and very involved in their children's lives.

It's not optimal, but it may be the best that many mothers can do under trying circumstances.


What are the "dangers and challenges that children face"? What are the "trying circumstances" that you are referring to?

I keep reading that the world is becoming safer for kids, according to crime stats. I keep reading that we're raising more young adults who aren't capable of making decisions or tackling life's problems without involving their parents.

It sounds like you're giving helicopter parents a bit of a pass on the legitimacy of what they're doing. I'm not sure it's justified.

Anonymous said...

Because largely, the suburban school district is only nominally high performing at this point, and only safe as far as physical security. Scratch the surface and you find the schools aren't preparing the children properly. Instead, parents must hire tutors galore for their academic needs; parents must keep helicoptering to ensure their child's teacher is the right one; parents must keep on top of the social scene the child is participating in; parents still must worry about college advising from outside consultants because the schools aren't providing it; parents must watch out for their child's emotional health, and the damage the school is doing in that regard.

Anonymous said...

Those expensive, private schools aren't much better. My child came home with a picture of Lincoln they had to color. When I questioned why he was brown, she insisted he was black and the entire class colored him that way.
For the record, I am a black woman.

Anonymous said...

I saw a post that may be of interest to you on this subject:

http://fairfieldhousenj.com/2010/06/14/fledglings/

Stuart Schneiderman said...

From what some of you are telling me, it sounds as though the classic refuges, private and suburban schools, are becoming less and less reliable. Thus, parents are becoming increasingly anxious about their children's future and feeling that they have to become more and more involved at all levels.

And this does not even address the added concerns that come to children from social media, the pervasiveness of internet porn, the number of children who are basically unsupervised, etc.

As for the important point, about whether I and the rest of those who are perhaps giving a pass to helicopter mothers, I would say that experience has taught to trust a mother to know what is best for her child.

One might say that some mothers take it too far, and that some do not take it far enough, but when mothers start feeling anxious about their children, most of the time they have a very good reason.

Cane Caldo said...

In the first season of Mad Men, several families from the neighborhood are gathered for a birthday party. A boy running through the house gets slapped when he breaks a glass--and not by his parent! When the boy's father comes over to see what's going on, he is about to slap the boy again when the first parent says the boy has had enough. These are New York parents.

Without that sort of community structure and continuity of values, helicoptering is bound to happen.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you trust mothers. I suggest that the people most negative about "helicopter parenting" are those people who have the most to lose from involved parents.

When you hear about how bad helicoptering is, it tends to come from school administrators (at all levels), education consultants, and the media. All of those groups have
a worldview about education, and largely that worldview is something they wish to inculcate in their organization, and resulting, in the children. They need to remove parental influence in order to succeed in that worldview.

Helicopter parents are a conflict for them. They stand in the way of their goals. If the school believes in a permissive parenting type model, where kids should be treated as if they have high executive function, and suffer the consequences of their mistakes, then helicopter parents specifically threaten that. If the school believes that students should be in charge of their own learning, helicopter parents are the only ones able to argue the onus should be on the school, etc.

Certainly some parents get the balance wrong. But lots of them do that because they know their own childhood was filled with such grievous errors, and the societal institutions can no longer be trusted to act in loco parentis.

Class factotum said...

In a city like New York, where children grow up in an extremely heterogeneous culture, parents try to find an island of homogeneity by sending their children to private schools.

Are these the same parents who would be against school vouchers and charter schools because they believe so passionately in public education?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The very same...

web said...

Pretty worthwhile data, lots of thanks for your post.

Primrose said...

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