Why helicopter parenting backfires on kids

Childhood is an important developmental feature of being human. Helicopter parenting disrupts that.

HEATHER HEYING: Childhood is a feature of being a human. It is a big part of what makes us so incredible. It's a big part of what allows us to be the conscious, creative, analytical, mathematical, moral animals that we are. So what then is childhood for? The simplest answer is childhood is for learning to be human. And so if you prevent a child from learning on their own—either by doing all of their thinking for them and solving all of their problems for them, in the style that has been called helicopter parenting—or, and this is related but different, or if you keep them from experiencing physical environments such that the only things that they are experiencing are social or virtual environments, if you keep them from either of those things learning how to solve problems on their own, learning how to solve their own problems on their own, and being exposed to the physical world with all of its messiness and its undeniable reality you will create children in either of those situations, and especially if you do both to them, you will create children who don't know how to solve their own problems and don't know what actual harm is.

So, to be an animal on the planet is to move around the world and to risk being hurt. And if you have grown up never having been hurt, never having experienced gravity—if you watched the Road Runner cartoons and watched the Road Runner chase Wile E. Coyote off the cliff and saw gravity not take effect until the coyote noticed that he was actually over thin air and then he fell, that's funny, right? That's funny in a cartoon. But if you've actually never experienced gravity, if you haven't played enough on trees or on swings or whatever and fallen off and gone down and hurt yourself, you may not actually believe in the reality of it. And so kids will grow up if they've been prevented from experiencing the outdoors, which is unpredictable and cannot be fully controlled, they will grow up and anytime they feel hurt of the emotional sort or of the intellectual sort they will think: 'This is harm. This is harm.' And it's not. We need to create children who are in fact anti-fragile, and who grow more from actually being exposed to ideas with which they disagree and strong emotions that we might say are negative, and indeed to situations where physical harm could come but hopefully it won't. Maybe it's sport, maybe it's carpentry, maybe it's cooking a meal without using a recipe—using real ingredients. Anything where there's a physical result in the world that you cannot game, that you cannot convince yourself, 'Yeah I did that well.' Either you fell or you didn't. Either you caught the Frisbee or you didn't. You built the table or you didn't. The food is edible or it's not. And so having real-world results for the actions that you take allows people to realize, you know what, it's not all just a social construct.

Helicopter parenting, and all of its associated forms, prevents children from exploring their emotional and intellectual landscape and often their physical landscape as well such that they become adults in body only. They haven't actually learned how to be human—they are still being coddled. Children who are coddled, who are protected from injury and insult as children, won't grow up into adults who know how to deal with injury and insult when it happens to them.

  • "Helicopter parenting, and all of its associated forms, prevents children from exploring their emotional and intellectual landscape, and often their physical landscape as well, such that they become adults in body only," says evolutionary biologist Heather Heying.
  • Childhood is an important developmental stage that trains kids for messy, uncontrollable reality. If adults don't teach kids how to solve their own problems, or if they prevent them from experiencing harm, children become less capable adults who don't know how to deal with real injury and insult.
  • Parents can help their children by teaching them to be anti-fragile. Children grow from being exposed to ideas with which they disagree, encountering negative emotions, and engaging in activities with real-world outcomes like sport, cooking, and DIY.

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