Ideas

Brainiac

The dawn (and rewards) of helicopter parenting

Shutterstock/Lapina

The proper way to parent children has been a source of deep concern in the US for many decades and the form of our anxieties reflect the larger values of our time. Two new books explore our evolving parental values, both inside and outside the helicopter.

Parenting to a Degree,” by Laura Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, is based on interviews with parents about how and why they were involved in their children’s lives while they were away at college. Parents, she writes, fall into three broad categories: “bystanders,” who had limited contact with their kids, “paramedics,” who swooped in when major problems arose, and, “helicopters,” who were present in some form all the time.

Advertisement

The degree of involvement in that third category is generally derided, as it was in the recent book, “How to Raise an Adult,” by a former dean at Stanford University. Hamilton thinks that kind of criticism of helicopter parents is misguided, though. While helicopter parents are viewed as obsessive, Hamilton observed that they conveyed real benefits to their kids: Graduation rates are far lower at large state schools than at elite private universities like Stanford, and she argues that the support helicopter parents provide can be crucial to ensuring their kids finish school.

“The vast majority of those kids who got into Stanford probably got in by virtue of helicopter parents,” she says. “I also find it ironic because a school like Stanford, Harvard or Princeton is a lot easier to get through without parents. They graduate 90-95 percent of their students. If you’re talking about a typical state school, there’s a much higher failure rate.”

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:
From the Globe's must-read columnist, an extra offering each week of opinion and ideas.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Hamilton did record many of the widely attributed downsides of helicopter parenting, particularly the way it can stunt a child’s progress into adulthood. But even with those drawbacks, she finds that intense parental involvement is a luxury good.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for students to successfully move through college without parental intervention and support of some kind, which puts students of less privileged backgrounds in a disadvantage,” she says.

The kind of involved parenting has long roots, which social historian Paula Fass traces to the 19th century in her new book, “The End of American Childhood.” Two centuries ago, American children enjoyed unbridled freedom and adult-level responsibility. Fass, a social historian at the University of California, Berkeley, considers the example of Ulysses S. Grant. Long before he was a Civil War hero and US president, he was a 10-year-old running his family’s farm with his parents nowhere to be seen.

Advertisement

“He’d roam freely for miles around the family farm and yet at same time he was very responsible,” says Fass. “He was expected to do things and when he did them well, he was given that independence.”

The wide-open version of childhood closed gradually, and for lots of reasons, but a major turning point according to Fass’s book was the Civil War. Children increasingly worked in factories, which led a new round of legal protections for kids. At the same time, parenting advice literature started to proliferate and public health advances meant fewer children were dying early in life. As mortality risks went down, children came to be seen as more precious and parents were willing to invest more in raising them. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, the limit of that investment grew, first into a newly defined stage of life called adolescence, and now into the college years and beyond. And while we may recognize the value in the kind of childhood enjoyed by rough-hewn boys like Ulysses S. Grant, the benefits conveyed to children by the ever-expanding flight patterns of helicopter parents, suggest there’s no easy way of going back.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.