We are all helicopter parents.
Or perhaps none of us are, because it’s always the other parent who hovers too much, never ourselves.
But by the standards of our grandparents, we are all smothering our kids. We have fewer children on average, but we spend much more time and money on the ones we have. And we’re more likely than our grandparents to move away from extended family and to land in cities and inner suburbs. In these noisy, complex, atomized environments, parents tend to keep kids physically close.
This brand of parenting represents a huge personal investment during a time when the public investment in children is shrinking, as measured by budget cuts to education, health programs and amenities like parks and playgrounds. To put it bluntly, we as parents are competing more fiercely for fewer resources.
We should carve out time for our spouses and ourselves, which will give our kids more time to themselves and with their friends.
As a result, today’s moms and dads feel they have little margin for error. It starts early, when urban parents struggle to navigate complicated and competitive private and public school admissions, fighting to avoid under-resourced schools. It doesn’t end there: when I was a teen, advanced placement student, SAT prep courses were optional; that’s no longer the case. Health care is much more expensive than it was for earlier generations, and so is housing. Stress is epidemic among parents, which contributes to record levels of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety — as well as physical ones like heart disease and adult-onset diabetes.
But it’s not just the health of adults that’s harmed. Our stress affects our kids as well. In fact, our ability to manage our own stress is the second most reliable predictor of our children’s wellbeing — with the first being love and affection. When the Families and Work Institute surveyed children of working parents, the kids didn’t say they wanted more time with their parents. What they really wanted was for their parents to be less stressed.
Science is on the side of the kids.
There is quite a lot of evidence saying that parents need to give them more space to play and slack off. Following the “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua’s all-work-all-the-time prescriptions may ultimately get your kids into Harvard — but it could also inflict crippling emotional and social wounds. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford summarizes decades of studying stress in nonhuman primates this way: “What’s clear by now is if you have a choice between being a high-ranking baboon or a socially affiliated one, the latter is definitely the one that is going to lead to a healthier, longer life.”
What are the solutions? On a societal level, we need to increase the public investment in kids. That includes making sure every kid gets the health care and education he or she needs — and thank you, Justice Roberts, for saving Obamacare. This will help parents take it down a notch or two — countries with universal health care tend to be less stressed, happier places. Do I sound like a “socialist”? I don’t care. The United States needs to stop making excuses for neglecting the health and wellbeing of families, from every social class.
On a personal level, we should carve out time for our spouses, our social lives and ourselves — which will, as a byproduct, give our kids more time to themselves and with their friends. In short, we should emulate Sapolsky’s socially affiliated baboons.
But there’s something else research says we can do to reduce stress: feel some compassion and forgiveness for each other. Attacking the dreaded helicopter parent might feel good in the moment — but it does nothing to address the social conditions that have turned 21st-century parenthood into a rat race. Parents, and Americans in general, should band together, not turn on each other.