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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: Helicopter Parents

I spend a lot of time thinking about unintended consequences.  I look at the seemingly innocuous actions that our government, schools, communities and parents take and think about the implications of these actions in the aggregate or "macro" over time.  I am often horrified by the wealth of bad ideas that are perpetuated upon people and wonder why these smart, mostly highly educated, people either miss the unintended consequences or if they just choose to ignore them because it's easier.

I'm sure I'll write about many examples of unintended consequences in this blog, but today, the main theme that comes to mind is helicopter parents.  Certainly, helicopter parents have been vilified by the media and some parenting gurus and every parent wants to think that they don't belong to the species, but I go to playgrounds and play spaces and I see these people every day.  So let's talk about unintended consequences of helicopter parenting.

~~You are not capable~~
The most insidious outcome of helicopter parenting is the message it sends to our kids:  "You are not capable."   Now, no parent would believe that they want to send that specific message, but often with parenting, what we do, how we react and how we interact with our kids communicates subtle clues to our children that we may not intend.   A parent who dutifully follows a child around the playground, with one hand out and fear exuding from his/her pores in anticipation of a fall or stumble is doing their child a gross injustice.  That same parent should sit to the side (within sight) and watch, with a supportive energy, their child do the dance of experimentation and challenge.  Allow the child to freely execute their check-ins and dive back into the fray.

Having watched so many kids freely explore a playground or play space, I can attest that kids, given the freedom, will approach most all new experiences with a level of excitement and caution.  Kids will step toward the new challenge, and often come running back, to check-in, then run back to go just a little farther and repeat the check-in again.  This is how kids acclimate to their world and it is the key to building confidence and competence.


~~The world is a scary place~~
Another unintended consequence of staying too close to our kids when they explore is communicating the message that the world is a scary place.  Communicating that pitfalls and danger abound at every turn can be easily accomplished if we have fear or anxiety in our own energy while our children explore.  You see, children are very attuned to the energy and emotions of their caregivers.  If a caregiver has fear about an activity, the kid will assimilate that fear and either abstain from trying or try and have conflicting emotions around the experience.

Playgrounds are so much safer now than they ever were when I grew up, but kids seem to have more issues and less competence around them.  I attribute this to the fact that few children are granted the ability to play at the park alone without caregivers close at hand.  Kids need to challenge their own mettle to understand, deeply, what their limits are and what they can feel confident about.  Practice in this area hones a child's intuition and lets them experience all the emotions that come from pushing oneself outside of their comfort zone.


~~An adult must help you, always~~
We grant way too much power to the "adult-in-the-room" when we raise our kids.  Our children are with us for around 18 years.  The first fourteen of which are malleable years where we can influence our children's' view of the world and their confidence in interacting with it.  That is a very short time in which we need to prepare our kids for existing in the real world.  However, when I say "prepare" I do not mean "telling" kids how to speak and behave.  I view this time more as modeling the behavior that is important for success.  Modeling is the parent's responsibility to show kids how they interact with the world.  But more importantly, it involves granting kids the freedom to experiment, try and fail at interacting with the world themselves with no repercussions but with a large net into which to fall.

Too many parents are way too involved in the everyday lives of their kids.  Some of this is a result of the school demanding that parents step up and ensure that a child meets their expectations.  Some of this is a result of the fact that we fear failure and shame so much we believe we can help our kids avoid failure and shame if we step in and demand their compliance.  I think both of these common outcomes deliver the unintended message to our kids that adults (or any authoritative power) are far more knowing than us and as a result, we grant others power over us throughout our lives, never recognizing that we can claim this power over ourselves.  Living in a world where someone lords power over you creates apathy and disillusionment, kind of like what we're experiencing in the current state of our government and society.


~~Adults are required to solve conflict~~ 
We have a culture that has lost its ability to resolve conflict amicably.   As we've allowed more and more adult management of children, we have ended up with a belief that conflicts are either resolved by someone else (aka: the adult) or we believe conflicts are unresolvable and people must pick sides. Conflict resolution skills develop young and it's important to recognize that it takes two (or more) kids to tango and that rarely does an act of aggression go unprovoked.  It's also important for the adult either not to step in and resolve the issue, or to help facilitate and model correct conflict resolution skills.  Punishing kids for disagreeing or disallowing both sides to feel heard (validated) only models that no one wins in conflict and that's not beneficial nor a true model of reality.

When adults step into our kids' disagreements and conflicts, we rob our children of the chance to experiment with resolving issues on their own.  Kids are amazingly capable of resolving conflict when granted the opportunity to do so, but rob them of this skill early on, and they will never develop the understanding of negotiation, meeting needs and figuring out win-win outcomes.   In general, all kids want the play to continue, so they will work to resolve issues to ensure that they can all still play.

Unintended consequences plague our world today.  Actions we've taken that have perpetuated unexpected outcomes happen in our families, our communities and our world.  I believe that we can change the world by recognizing that the way we raise kids fundamentally affects their ability to interface with the world, to feel confident, to feel self-reliant and to have success navigating personal relationships.  Conventional wisdom for raising kids in the US has had detrimental affect on achieving these outcomes.  Fight convention and instead, provide a safe landing pad for your kids to test out different ideas, experience differing levels of success and safely hone their personal guideposts.  The impact on our society will be long-lasting and profound.



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