UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Helicopter, snowplow, & stealth fighter parents

Helicopter parent. 

It’s a loaded term with a cynical pejorative connotation, especially in the world of educators. People often look with contempt at parents who quite literally seem to care too much. And, in the era of overzealous mothers contacting college professors about grades or even employers about interviews and promotions, it’s easy to criticize and ridicule such behavior. However, after nearly thirty years in education, I have a slightly qualified view of over-active parenting. As an educator, I have always said I’d much rather deal with a helicopter parent who hovers too much than an absentee parent who just doesn’t seem to care. I’ve seen both kinds of parenting, and the risks of disengaged, careless, or even resentful parenting are just too damaging. For, as esteemed author Elie Wiesel so wisely reminded us, “The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.”

Now it appears there is a bit of validation for helicopter parenting. According to researcher and writer Pamela Druckerman “the bad news about helicopter parenting” is “it works.” With that news, I would imagine most critics immediately key in on the word “works.” How exactly does it work, and at what cost to the child? According to numerous studies, the most effective parents are, in fact, authoritative. However, that authoritative approach doesn’t simply mean demanding obedience. It actually focuses on developing qualities such as adaptability, problem-solving, self-efficacy, and independence. Parenting is about methodically leading children to adulthood, nurturing their growth and independence.  

However, a new parenting term has recently hit the lexicon — snowplow parents. Snowplow parents are people who do everything they can to “clear the road” of any obstacles for their children. This approach is complicated because everyone wants what is best for their kids, and no one wants to see his child struggle unnecessarily. At the same time, reasonable people understand that struggle and adversity are part of growing up, and often “what we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly,” as noted by Thomas Paine. When children are young, it is right to protect them from the harsh realities of the world — even if we inadvertently introduce them to death, destruction, and betrayal at an early age by showing them video games and Disney movies. Beyond that minor indiscretion, parents simply want childhood to be relatively pleasant.

Once kids reach adolescence, and the rules of competition and comparison come into play, we must begin to evaluate those sink-or-swim moments, as our kids learn to take care of themselves. Snowplow parents won’t allow the sinking, mistakenly believing that smoothing the road for the kid is more important than teaching the driving skills and coping strategies to prepare kids to ride solo. There are varying levels of snowplow behavior, with the Lori Loughlin-Felicity Huffman version being the most insane. That “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal will perhaps provide a moment of reflection for parents, kids, and college admissions officers to reevaluate the often Faustian system we have created.

Of course, I’ve never advocated for helicopter parenting, even as I seek to understand it. The term seemed to arise from the Baby Boomer parenting style which sought to protect their Millennial kids from taking the risks and making the mistakes of their parents. I much prefer the structured and supportive but more free-range parenting style associated with Gen Xers who want their children to have the freedom and develop the resilience they did as children in the 70s and 80s. At the heart is the idea of loving them, but not obsessing over them. It’s caring for them by teaching them and expecting them to care for themselves and others. It’s also about trusting them to be the human beings we raised, even if that means knowing they will make mistakes and occasionally disappoint us and themselves. That’s when they need love and support the most.

Effective parents don’t hover, they don’t helicopter, and they certainly don’t snowplow. However, they are neither aloof nor disengaged. Generational writer and sociologist Neil Howe has termed Gen X parents “Stealth Fighter Parents.” They are aware and involved in the lives of their children, choosing where, when, and how much. If an issue “seems below their threshold of importance,” they will let it go, “saving their energy” and probably their nerves. But if the situation “shows up on their radar … they will strike, rapidly and in force, and often without warning.” The target might be peers or other adults, but most likely it’s the kids themselves. Ultimately, it’s simply about being involved and caring while gradually letting them learn to fly. 

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com