Peter Love, Ph.D.
There has been a lot of press coverage recently about the phenomenon of the “helicopter” parent- that parent who is described as overly involved in all aspects of their young adult children’s lives. Generally speaking, this aspect of parenting is seen as having a negative impact on the development of young adults. The “Truth” (note the capital T!) of the matter, as always with any kind of human interaction, is more complex and nuanced than the standard narrative would have us believe. The “Truth” of this relationship, as I have grown to understand it over the past thirty plus years in the disability field, can be summarized in a few general propositions. The first set of propositions has to do with how parents become “helicopter” parents:
1. The two principal jobs of parenting are, to use the popular phrase, “to give them roots and to give them wings.”
The roots come from a solid sense of security and protection, a clear sense of being unconditionally loved, and a strong sense of self-worth (but not overinflated self-esteem!).
The wings and the ability to fly both come from developing the right muscles, testing out the air currents through repeated trials and errors, and having the courage to leave the nest.
Balancing these two jobs has become increasingly complicated in the modern world. And when you have a child with disabilities, this balancing act is made even more complicated.
2. We are receiving increasingly inconsistent messages about our role as protectors of our children. We are constantly being reminded of how important it is to nurture and protect our children. At the same time, witness the recent controversy over the book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Should we be tougher or softer with our kids? Somewhere in between?
In addition, we are being made constantly afraid by the popular press of the multiple dangers facing us and our children. You cannot even buy a carton of milk without being confronted with the face of a missing child and the implicit message—“This could be your kid!”
3. The experience of special education for many parents is that unless they are constantly vigilant and activist on behalf of their children, the “system” will do everything it can to save money and to deny services. To paraphrase Margaret Mead—Never doubt that a thoughtful, committed, parent can change the school’s bureaucracy. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
4. According to two recent studies, college students are doing less studying than at any other time in history, and are also more stressed than at any other time in history. As is generally acknowledged, this generation of students is woefully under prepared for both the academic and life management demands of the typical college. How many young adults these days can do their own laundry? And when you add in the challenges of a learning disability how much more concerned must parents be?
5. Colleges are often big and scary places where your young adult child is one of many thousands, and where the very identity of becoming a college student is integrally bound up with the ability to be independent and self-directed. If your young adult child has problems with those very skills of independence and self-management, and the college is saying that the expectations from the college are for your young adult child to demonstrate those skills, what parent is not going to step in to protect and defend their child—young adult though he or she may be?
So with all of the above going on, the question becomes “How can a parent of a child with learning disabilities of any kind NOT become a helicopter parent?”
The second set of propositions has to do with how parents can ease themselves out of the helicopter, and why it is important for them and their young adult students to do so.
1. Human beings learn better through a well-supported relationship with trial and error and failure than they learn through any other learning mechanism (i.e. “roots and wings”). But if we do not feel supported by the significant people in our lives in our exploration and risk taking and inevitable failures, we can end up in a state of combined shame and learned helplessness that can lead to life paralysis.
2. When we give either advice or help of any kind to other people, we always run the risk of also delivering the “meta-message”—“You can’t do it. That’s why you need the help.” Every time we step in to help, we also do a little bit of harm. Genuine help comes from building the skills that are necessary for the task. The truth of the old saying, “Give a person a fish and they eat for a day; teach a person HOW to fish and they eat for a lifetime” is important to take to heart and apply in our own lives.
3. No matter how well intentioned the help may be, or how necessary it might feel, it is almost always deeply uncomfortable and embarrassing for any young adult to receive help from his/her parents. As parents, you may not ever hear about it, but as support professionals we see it every day in the faces of our students. Is the kind of help that is so commonly offered really genuinely helpful?
4. Rightly or wrongly, a college degree has become an increasingly important part of people’s sense of worth and identity. There are many students in college these days who are there because they cannot imagine any other pathway for themselves that will feel equally respected and valued by the society-- not because they want to be in college. There are many other students in college primarily because they are wanting to help their parents to feel either more secure about their young adult child’s future or less bad in some way about their young adult child’s disability. Unless a young adult is in college for himself or herself, no amount of support, cajoling or hovering will make this a successful adventure.
5. We all so often feel that with just one more intervention, one more push, one more letter writing campaign, that our jobs as protectors and defenders will finally be done. And, of course, there is some truth to this belief—eventually all of this protection and pushing and intervention does pay off. The problem is that there is always a point at which the protection and the pushing and the intervention, in reality, serve more to prolong the moment of finally being done than they help to advance the young adult toward independence.
That’s just great, Dr. Love. Thanks very much. Now what are we supposed to do with all of that?
While there are a number of excellent guidebooks out there for parents of college age students, the following suggestions are intended as possible general guidelines to that critically important question:
1. Get in the habit of asking yourself lots and lots of questions before you act. Questions like:
Who am I really doing this intervention for?
Does this intervention really help or hurt?
Is this intervention more about building skills, or more about providing protection?
How would I feel if someone were doing this intervention in my life?
What do I want the long-term outcome of my intervention to be?
What would the world really be like if I did not do what I am thinking of doing?
2. Get into a warm, friendly and welcoming relationship with error and failure, viewing them as the excellent teachers that they truly are.
3. Learn the skills of effective partnering—clear and honest communication, mutual respect, flexibility, openness to alternate points of view, principled negotiation, meeting in the middle.
4. Keep the long view in sight. Who do I want to help my young adult child to become?
5. Imagine a future in which your young adult child calls you up just because he or she feel like talking to you. It can and does happen!
6. Imagine about how good it will feel to be finally off-duty. Just as importantly, imagine what you will be missing in your life when you are finally off-duty. And, for your own sake and for the sake of your young adult child, figure out how you are going to deal with that missing part of your life.
Dr. Peter Love is the Director of the Learning Resource Center (LRC) at Mitchell College in New London, CT. The LRC is one of the oldest and most comprehensive academic support programs for students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD in the country. The LRC supports over 300 students per year with 25 professional Learning and Writing Specialists. Dr. Love has over thirty years experience in the disability field ranging from direct support of people with disabilities, executive leadership in the non-profit sector, employment in state disability departments, and teaching about disabilities and public health at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Dr. Love is also the President of the Connecticut Association for Higher Education and Disability.