It’s bad enough being a kid with helicopter parents. They can hover over your childhood and adolescence, warping the normal process of growing up, and inflicting enough damage for decades of therapy. In October 2015, the website Reddit asked readers what was the “worst or most embarrassing” thing their parents had put them through. The answers are hilarious – and chilling – and probably would make any adult extremely grateful not to be a kid growing up in America today. But unfortunately, helicopter parents also inflict damage on other adults, schools, communities, and kids outside their own families.
To me, “Drugs, Lies & Schemes at the PTA” sounds like a bad made-for-tv movie. But this is an actual People Magazine headline. You know that old saying that a good deed never goes unpunished? Well, in 2010 in Irvine, California, a husband and wife, both lawyers, planted drugs in the car of the Plaza Vista School PTA president and uber-volunteer, Kelli Peters, whom the couple accused of insulting their elementary school son. Fortunately, some measure of justice prevailed: the parents, Kent and Jill Easter, were caught, stripped of their law licenses, sent to jail, and most recently ordered to pay $5.7 million in damages to Kelli Peters.
As a parent, I’ve seen the same kind of insanity here on the East Coast. A mom who never spoke again to her fourth grade daughter’s best friend after an alleged (and very minor) misunderstanding. Parents who insisted that coaches or teachers be fired for not favoring their child. In 2015, a Virginia family sued their 16 year daughter’s volleyball league when the coach didn’t play her as much as they thought she should. Their argument was that they’d invested heavily in her volleyball season – roughly $6,000 – and they felt robbed of the exposure to college coaches they thought their tenth grade daughter should be getting.
In many respects, the most disturbing case happened in 2003, when 10 students at Landon, a prestigious Maryland boy’s private 4th – 12th grade school, cheated on the SAT. They were all seniors, and all played together on the winningest lacrosse franchise in school history. One was the lacrosse coach’s son. In other words, privileged children, with bright futures, in leadership roles at their school. Not only did they cheat, but they bragged extensively about cheating in the ensuing days. Eight were caught and confessed; the two who didn’t immediately confess were expelled, essentially for lack of speedy acknowledgment and contrition. In response, one set of parents sued the school. The case was complicated, and the boy whose parents sued the school had passed answers to another student but had not used the answers himself, and thus had not come forward to confess. I can understand the parents feeling their son was punished too harshly, but still: they sent the message to their son and to other students, siblings, and faculty that under certain circumstances, cheating is acceptable, and that wealth and privilege, instead of carrying responsibility, instead ensure a lack of consequences for breaking the law.
It is, arguably, one’s right to raise one’s children this way. Unless there are signs of abuse, it’s not for other adults to interfere with overbearing or overprotective parents. But when helicopter parents start polluting the whole community, driving good teachers out of the educational field, and setting poor examples for other children, it seems we have some right, or even a responsibility, to intervene.
How can we stop these helicopter parents from undermining our efforts to raise ethical, responsible, fair-minded children and establish healthy community values?
I see three simple steps parents can take:
1) Don’t favor your children over others or establish special rules that apply only to your family.
2) Support the authority figures in your children’s lives (within reason; obviously not if they show signs of being emotionally, physically, or sexual abusive).
3) Punish your children fairly – and publicly — when they make mistakes, even when it hurts you more than it hurts them.
Maybe there have always been overprotective parents. Perhaps it’s a biological imperative to favor one’s own children, and to try to use one’s adult powers to shield our own children from the effects of their actions, instead of letting them learn painful, necessary life lessons. But these cases of extreme helicopter parenting are deeply disturbing. I wouldn’t want any of these children to wield power or influence over my children, our society, or me as adults. And that’s the long-term consequence of ignoring the destructive trends towards helicoptering as a parenting philosophy.
My parents were my biggest fans and champions, but they did not hesitate to make me confess and make restitution on the three vividly memorable occasions when I stole as a child (in case you’re wondering: a Hershey’s candy bar, a used pair of ballet shoes, and a brand new bathing suit my family couldn’t afford). I’m hoping that soon enough, the pendulum will swing back, and parents collectively will return to the good old days where bad behavior was punished and parents took their responsibility to raise ethical children seriously. One day, the next generation may thank us, and we may thank ourselves.