Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Puzzling Hubris of Helicopter Parenting

Helicopter parenting is becoming epidemic. An entire generation will be incubated with astonishingly obsessive vigilance. What could go wrong?

It's often suggested that this style of parenting amounts to a Narcissist Creation Kit. But helicoptery parents have heard that line and are prepared with rebuttals about how nurturing children - even when larded out by the metric ton - is very different from spoiling them.

A keener issue, which few such parents have considered, is the sheer hubris of it all. To devote every waking second to forging smashingly great and successful children involves two presumptions (aside from the patently false one that children are like playdough, moldable via sheer parental will):

1. You, yourself, know how to be great and successful (i.e., you are those things)

2. You know how to make children turn out great and successful.

#1, alone, is a stretch. Great, successful people usually have their hand in too many projects and interests to become helicopter parents. If your supreme lifetime creative accomplishment amounts to the union of sperm and egg, one might reasonably question your fabulous greatness (also: if you're so wonderful, wouldn't it be appropriate to consider how you, yourself, were raised, and to repeat that proven formula?)

But let's say you really are utterly fantastic, and have chosen to forsake everything to spend 24/7 crawling around amid a litter of toys with your offspring, doting on their every passing need. Why assume you have the knowledge and experience to instill this fantasticness? For one thing, even if you're cranking out babies wholesale, it will take decades to view the results. All experimental parents are newbies when it comes to long run outcome.

So what makes ordinary people, with no track record in molding human character (as if it could be molded!) so confident they can bootstrap extraordinary children? The answer's obvious: a profoundly deluded sense of their own extraordinariness. And parents prone to delusions of grandeur are the very ones who ought to spend less, rather than more, time smothering their children.

As with all human trends, there's a historical chain. Today's 20-somethings were raised, by a generation of permissive buddy-parents, to have an unshakeable faith in their own extraordinariness - a conviction transcending any need for actual evidence. Their sparkling, ineffable, and thoroughly unearned self-confidence can't help but leave them convinced they'd be the supreme parents of supreme kids if they simply put their minds to the task.

So the question is: what sort of kids will this recent crop of smothered incubatees - all destined to be far, far above average! - eventually raise? My guess: the 1960's style parents I had, who push their kids out the door to socialize with their own kind, and who step in mostly to impose hard limits. The cycle completes!


ER said...

I am not convinced that hubris is the issue for many of these parents. What I observe is an abundance of fear - fear of failure, fear of financial problems, fear of social exclusion... etc. The fear pushes them to try to control events and eliminate all risks.

Still, a negative outcome for the child.

Jim Leff said...

Yeah, Chris Hayes' show last weekend raised the issue of how parents may be going a bit nuts in the frantic effort to lift their kids into the much-discussed 1%, lest they be left behind among us plebeian 99%.

And, yeah, that is surely a factor, though certainly not for everyone (this style of parenting has been adopted by a small minority for decades; I remember reading reports about it back in the 1970's....and the kids, if I recall correctly, tended to be a bit screwed up).

But the issue of hubris, though certainly not the least bit acknowledged by anyone involved, remains central, in my opinion: what makes you think you can, as your all-consuming art project, raise ideal children? There's a big fat slab of hubris involved, pure and simple.

I think of myself as a pretty clever guy. I have a healthy self-confidence in my overall know-how and insight. Yet even if I were to concede that nurture can trump nature in child-rearing (which, fwiw, I generally would not), I wouldn't imagine that I had the talent, vision, or wisdom to micromanage my child's development. In the larger picture, I'd never imagine that tons and tons more me is the key to optimal results.

Self-confidence is good, but blind self-faith is unseemly. And to ensnare one's child in your vanity, treating her/his development as Your Little Experiment, because by sheer force of your unflagging will and unerring judgement, this kid will triumph....that strikes me as irresponsible and likely deranged.

Children need to be around their peers. They need space. They need unmediated experience, and independent initiative. They need to see parents acting like normal grown-ups - not perpetual playpen concierges - who they can view as models. To me it seems the most obvious common sense....as does the all-consuming vanity which transparently fuels these parents' mindset.

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