The XX Factor

Think You’re Not a Helicopter Parent?

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“Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe. Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire.” Does that sound frighteningly familiar to anyone else?

Lori Gottlieb’s “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy/How the Cult of Self Esteem is Ruining Our Kids” (from the July/August issue of the Atlantic) should be mandatory reading for every parent, even those convinced (like me) that we’re not coddlers. That it sounds like just another article on how giving participation trophies to 6-year-olds at the end of a no-score-keeping soccer season sets kids up for disappointment in later life is just an accident of titling. So much has been written about parenting over the course of the last few decades that it’s hard to hit on a phrase that doesn’t reference some overused past trope. Gottlieb’s article is much more than that.

Amid the parental condemnations to which our ears have become so attuned (the helicopter college parents refusing to leave campus, the “teacup” freshmen so fragile they break at the slightest setback) is a harsher look than usual at how both parents and kids wind up in those now-cliched roles. Do you give your kid choices at every opportunity: “Do you want a grilled cheese or fish sticks for lunch?” Life won’t. Employers won’t either. Tell the child “great job” every time she ties her shoes? (Guilty, to the point where I have a child who looks at me after she puts on her shoes and says, “Did I do great job, Mommy?”) Maybe we’re setting up an artificial sense of achievement that no child can live up to later, when just doing what needs to get done is rarely going to earn her a cookie. And then there’s that “shuttling to any activity they chose” business. Isn’t “shuttling” the very definition of parenthood? It is now, certainly.

Choices, praise, activities: In my community, those are such commonalities that they seem inevitable, and that’s exactly why, in spite of my own decidedly non-helicopter style, they’re a big part of my own parenting, too. As Jennifer Niesslein said in the April issue of Brain, Child, “other parents influence our own parenting.” We are “a tribe, a peer group, a cohort,” and we parent accordingly.

I quickly lose patience with Gottlieb’s twentysomething therapy patient, she of the great relationship with her family and the happy, outwardly successful life, who’s losing sleep over the nagging sense that she’s “less amazing” than her parents have always told her she was. Were she my child, I would not pay for her therapy. I’d buy her a bike and tell her to ride it until she felt tired. But that frustrating patient (and many others like her), along with Gottlieb’s cultural awareness and her conversations with not just her fellow therapists, but teachers of an older generation willing to offer a candid look at my own generation’s parenting style, are what make Gottlieb’s work more than just another parenting magazine stroll through the guilt factory.

While there’s an inevitable paradox to Gottleib’s conclusion: Trying too hard to make our children happy fails to make them happy, therefore we should try not to try too hard—so that they will be happy—that makes me, as a parent, want to throw up my hands and weep, I still read this twice. I know I’m not a helicopter parent. Gottlieb, though, convinced me that the distance between here and there is not nearly so far as I think.