Danger! Fun Ahead!

My friend emailed me this article from the SF Chronicle yesterday about the “Wussification of America’s Children.” It basically says that we worry too much about our children. It contends that the overprotection of children can even hurt their development.

This is a phenomenon that I have seen in popular media, but not necessarily in the research. I have heard the term “Helicopter Parenting” to describe this idea—the parent hovers over the child and at the first sign of distress swoops in to rescue him or her. Then the child does not learn how to cope for him or herself and gets the message that the world is a dangerous place.

I have worked with a few parents over the years that have some of these characteristics. One parent I worked with (and her advocate and lawyer) demanded that the school write in the IEP (Special Education Contract) that the child’s classroom be kept at 68 degrees. This is the same student who refused to come see me for testing without her mother (she was in 10th grade, by the way). Common sense dictates that this girl would not be working toward any sort of independence. But what does the research say?

The developmental psychology research on parenting is as big as the Internet search for “parenting” (25,700,000). It’s expansive, conflicting, and confusing. One article will say that parents need to do X and then the next will say that X is the worst possible thing to do, you must do Y. One of the longest-standing theories of parenting and related outcomes is the work by Diana Baumrind (of my alma matter, UC Berkeley).* Baumrind proposed back in 1966 three parenting styles that to date, still permeate the research on parenting: the Authoritarian Parenting Style (low warmth, high control), Permissive Parenting Style (high warmth, low control) and Authoritative Parenting Style (high warmth, moderate control).

Study after study uses these parenting styles to predict any number of outcomes, but mostly academic success and social skills. The Authoritative Parenting Style usually comes out on top. I wonder where Helicopter Parenting fits in to this dynamic. It’s sort of room temperature—not exactly warm, not exactly cold. The control is variable too—it can be permissive, authoritarian or authoritative, depending on the parent.

What I do know is that life is not room temperature. We need to teach our children the coping skills to “weather the storm” of life. I grew up in Colorado where in one day it would be 90 degrees and the next day it would snow. If my parents had only let me experience the 68-degree days, I would have missed out on swimming at the pool, early entrepreneurship with lemonade stands, making snowmen with my sister (and snow-women, we were egalitarian), and skiing in the mountains with hot cocoa breaks to warm our frozen noses. And those are some of my fondest childhood memories.

*Sidebar: Diana Baumrind worked out at my gym and she is unstoppable in Spin class. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere but I haven’t had my coffee yet.

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Comments on Danger! Fun Ahead!

  1. mpsarrou says:

    Dear Dr.Bell,
    I'm an educational and child psychologist in Athens, Greece and I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your notes. I'm about to work in a secondary school (junior and high-school)as a counsellor on a part-time basis and I was wondering if you could shed some light on how you get your referrals (teachers,parents,kids themselves?) and how you prioritize your work. I would be grateful for any 'technical' information from your experience!
    many thanks,
    maria psarrou

  2. Rebecca says:

    hi Maria,

    Best of luck to you in your new job! I get referrals from kids themselves, parents, teachers, and administrators. However, all of my referrals go through a team of support staff that meets every week to make sure there isn't overlap of services and that we are addressing the range of issues from multiple angles. Then, it is decided who will support, case manage, or counsel the student. It's a pretty good system, so you don't accidently overlap in services,

    Take care, Rebecca

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