A recent article from the Opinion section of The New York Times, “The Bad News About Helicopter Parenting: It Works,” by Pamela Druckerman received a lot of buzz on social media. Our reaction, like many other youth development experts, was disappointment and concern about how the article incorrectly uses the terms “helicopter parenting” and “authoritative parenting.” We submitted the following letter to the editor of The New York Times with our feedback on this article:
In “The Bad News About Helicopter Parenting: It Works,” Druckerman — and Doepke and Zilibotti, the authors of the original research she references -— seem to conflate the notion of “helicopter parenting” with “authoritative parenting.” Helicopter parenting, characterized by a hyper-focus on protecting, controlling, and perfecting kids, goes against current research on healthy child development. This parenting style can lead to anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health challenges as well as disengagement at school.
In contrast, authoritative parenting advocates a balance between supporting kids and setting expectations for them. At Challenge Success, a research-based organization that supports well-balanced, engaged students, we promote authoritative parenting as an effective approach to build resilience, problem-solving skills, and independence in young people. We see qualities like these as part of a broader definition of success or “what works” when it comes to raising young adults as opposed to a narrow definition of success that relies on extrinsic metrics like grades, test scores, and selective college admissions. As parents and educators, we believe in honoring each child’s interests and talents and supporting them to achieve their unique paths to success.
Dr. Denise Pope and Dr. Madeline Levine, Challenge Success Co-Founders
We wanted to share a longer response to the Challenge Success community to clarify the differences between “helicopter parenting” and “authoritative parenting” and why we believe authoritative parenting “works” to raise independent, resilient adults.
Helicopter parenting refers to parents who are over focused on the successes and failures of their children. According to researchers at Miami University in Ohio, helicopter parents tend to be overly involved in their children’s life, exhibit controlling behavior, and limit their children’s autonomy. A classic example of this behavior would be a parent who contacts their child’s teacher to argue for a higher grade on a paper. This style of parenting is characterized by a level of overprotecting and over-perfecting that is beyond responsible parenting. For instance, asking certain details about your child’s whereabouts is appropriate, such as, “Where is the party taking place and will there be adult chaperones?” but needing to know every detail of your child’s life is over-doing it. Similarly, it is appropriate to take an interest in your child’s academic experience, but correcting homework assignments and expecting only top grades can do more harm than good.
At Challenge Success, we have seen the devastating impact of overparenting and undue pressure placed on young people to achieve a narrow definition of success as measured primarily by things like grades, test scores, college admissions, or money. This kind of extreme pressure can be linked to high levels of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, and other mental health challenges for students as well as disengagement at school.
In contrast, “authoritative parenting” as originally defined by Diana Baumrind, Ph.D., is characterized by high responsiveness shown through warmth, love, and support, and high expectations shown by enforcing clear, consistent boundaries. Research from the Center for Parent and Teen Communication shows that this more balanced approach that combines nurturing encouragement and sensible limits is linked to development of characteristics that most parents want for their children such as intrinsic motivation, resilience, creativity, and persistence.
As our organizational name and mission indicates, we encourage families and schools to challenge society’s narrow definitions of success and honor each child’s interests, talents, and unique pathway in life. We offer the following tips to parents to support healthy development for kids of all ages. To see more about each tip or download a copy, visit the Parenting Tips page on the Challenge Success website.
- Define success on your terms.
- Maintain play time, down time, and family time; avoid over-scheduling and honor consistent sleep routines.
- Love your children unconditionally.
- Discipline and set limits.
- Cultivate autonomy; allow kids space to develop on their own and make mistakes.
- Build responsibility at home and in the community.
- Ease performance pressure.
- For older kids – Debunk college myths.
It isn’t easy to find the right balance when it comes to parenting. Some of us err on the side of hovering too closely instead of letting our child make mistakes that they can learn from. Others may have expectations that are way out of line with what is feasible and healthy. Authoritative parents temper their demands and responsiveness in order to tailor fit them for each child. So, next time you are tempted to swoop in and rescue, ask yourself, “Is this really in my child’s best interest?”
Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Co-Founder of Challenge Success and a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. She is the author of, “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, and co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. She is a 3-time recipient of the Stanford University School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award and was honored with the 2012 Education Professor of the Year “Educators’ Voice Award” from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences.