Eight Ways to Avoid Helicopter Parenting

What’s a helicopter parent? Someone who hovers more than you do.

Seriously, nobody tries to be a helicopter parent. But parenting is the toughest job in the world, so most of us obsess sometimes. The irony is that so many of the ways we over-do it as parents actually sabotage our child’s healthy development.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a guiding framework so we know what’s appropriate, versus what’s helicoptering? We do. Decades of research have confirmed what kids need to grow into happy, resilient, confident adults. After 20 years of observing parent-child relationships, I’ve consistently found that it isn’t our child’s needs that seduce us into over-doing it; it’s our own fears. These basic principles will help even confirmed hoverers avoid the most common over-parenting pitfalls.

1. Over-Stimulation
Babies don’t need special stimulation or videos to grow better brains; that overwhelms them. Their brains are designed to grow perfectly by engaging with an adoring parent who responds to the baby’s cries with soothing, and to the baby’s interest with just as much excited warmth as the baby shows she can handle.

2. Over-Assisting
When your child works to master a new skill, offer only as much support as he needs at each stage. When he struggles to turn over at four months, helping him deprives him of the satisfaction of mastering a task he’s set his mind on. When he’s four, “teaching” him to build a tower deprives him of learning from his own mistakes. And if you take over the science fair project the night before it’s due, not only does your 10-year-old learn that you’ll rescue him; he learns he’s incompetent. But if you help him organize his ideas and his work at each step, resisting the impulse to improve on the project yourself, he completes the job, more competent and hugely proud.

3. Over-Tigering
OK, you want your child to go to Harvard. But at what emotional cost? Children learn through self-motivated exploration and play, which is a foundation of creativity and happiness throughout life. You may be proud if your child learns to read at age four, but the research shows that children in play-based preschool programs do substantially better academically than those who attend academic preschools. Likewise, pressuring you child to make As in third grade to help her college odds almost certainly decreases her chances at happiness in life. And if she’s feeling shamed or not good enough, you’re doing active harm.

4. Over-Protecting
Clucking anxiously as he climbs that play structure may make you feel better, but it cripples your child’s confidence. Just ask if he’s keeping himself safe, then spot him. Breathe, smile and exclaim “Wow, look at you!” If he falls, you’re there to catch him — which is, after all, what allowed him to try.

5. Over-Scheduling
Unstructured time gives children the opportunity to imagine, invent and create. If we keep them too busy with structured activity or screen entertainment, they never hear the stirrings of their own hearts, which might lead them to study the bugs on the sidewalk, make a monster from clay, or organize the neighborhood kids into making a movie. These calls from our heart are what lead us to those passions that make life meaningful, and they’re available to us even beginning in childhood, if we take the time to explore our inner worlds.

6. Over-Reacting
When we’re worried, we often take action to alleviate our anxiety, rather than responding to what our child actually needs. So the first intervention is always becoming aware of and regulating our own emotions. Then we might realize that what our son actually needs is some role-playing with us about how to approach his baseball coach, rather than for us to pick up the phone ourselves.

7. Overlooking Emotional Development
Regulating her emotions so she doesn’t lash out when she gets angry. Managing her anxiety so she can tackle that tough homework. Choosing friends wisely. Your child’s EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) is at least as important to her success in life as her IQ. Acknowledging and accepting emotions, even while you limit behavior, builds EQ.

8. Overestimating Failure
There’s a common misconception that children develop resilience by failing. Actually, children only develop resilience when they successfully weather failure, meaning when they learn from experience that no matter what happens, they can handle it. That solid foundation of knowing you’re always there, in her corner, is what allows a child to risk disappointment and come out the other side — in other words, to develop resilience.

Notice Over-Nurturing isn’t on the list? That’s because there’s no such thing as too much connection, support, and love. Over-parenting comes from fear. Every choice we make, at core, is a move toward either love or fear. Choose love.

Dr. Laura Markham earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University, but she’s also the mother of two teenagers, so she understands kids — and parents. She’s the founder of AhaParenting.com, which has been described as “one Aha! moment after another for parents.” She is regularly interviewed by media from the Joy Behar Show and the Fox Morning Show to Working Mother Magazine, and serves as a parenting expert for Mothering.com, Pregnancy.org, and several other websites.