The fine line between hovering and helping

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Dr. Haim Ginott coined the term “helicopter parenting” in 1969 in his book Between Parent and Teenager; the description was inspired by teens who indicated their parents hovered over them like a helicopter.

Now, 16 years into the 21st century, that term still applies to those of us (yes, I am guilty as charged) who tend to lean toward over-involvement in their kids’ lives. While typically the descriptor applies to parents of high school and college students, it has trickled down to the elementary level over the years. Parents who want to ensure that their children get a certain teacher or coach or perhaps who go so far as to select the children’s friends and activities while also giving an excessive amount of assistance on homework, school projects and other tasks and chores are classic examples.

With three boys in college, I’ll be the first to admit that I can be the queen of helicoptering. I have always been there to catch them when they fall. I have ensured that every step of their lives has been relatively easy and without much stress or anxiety. However, I have also come to learn that my actions may have brought more damage than good. For example, my middle son sent me a late-night text from college last fall and asked me to call him the next morning around six so that he wouldn’t oversleep and miss an important exam. My immediate response was, “Of course!” I certainly didn’t want him to risk jeopardizing his grade. In other words, I allowed him to rely on me for something he should oversee himself.
There’s a fine line between being genuinely concerned for your kids and asserting too much control. If you instruct your kids to do their homework, then that is considered good parenting. Do you call the school to find out how well your child did on a test and then demand to speak with the teacher? You may have just crossed the line. Constant hovering over your child actually puts certain limitations on him.

If your son is not football team material in terms of physical prowess but he wants to try out for the team, your first inclination might be to dissuade him, as you don’t want him to get hurt. However, if you put up that roadblock for him, he might not fully discover his strengths, such as great speed and agility that can often trump size. As a result, his confidence may waver and his courage to try any number of other things based on your fears may stagnate his emotional and mental growth.

Doing too much for your child because you don’t want her to be stressed or discouraged only creates more stress in the long run. If you plan, coordinate and essentially do everything for her, she will never confidently learn to adapt in similar future situations and her decision-making skills can suffer. When presented with new situations and opportunities with which she has no experience, your child may pass them up because she lacks the emotional tools with which to handle them.

How much of your hovering is related to what you want and not to what your child wants? Did you sign your child up for piano lessons because you took them? It’s not your job to create a mini version of yourself. It’s your job to be supportive of your child and express an interest in what interests him.

Constant hovering discourages independent and critical thinking. By not having Mom or Dad ready with a solution to a problem, the child learns that he can survive in the world without their input and help. You can still be there to provide love and support; just allow him to turn life’s inevitable stumbling blocks into stepping stones. It’s impossible to be with your child every minute, so empower him with confidence, knowledge, curiosity and purpose so that he can thrive on his own. When a child grows up and can anticipate mistakes, his sense of fear is diminished and he is more likely to step outside his comfort zone with more enthusiasm and confidence.

My oldest son spent six months in Europe this year in a study abroad program. I was nervous about everything, even down to the flight over and all of the adventures he would pursue. On the day he arrived back home, off the plane stepped a bold young man who had toured over 15 countries, many by himself, and had learned to speak another language, to operate a budget with foreign currency, meet new people and fit into an entirely different culture. Needless to say, I stand by now more as a coach, mentor and advisor. I allow him to make his own choices–and his own mistakes–and the growth in him as a result has exceeded my expectations. In fact, I have found myself on occasion seeking guidance from him! HLM

Sources:, and the experience of the author.