May 2010


The first time I heard the term ‘helicopter parent’ was at a Morehouse College board meeting in Atlanta about 8 years ago.  According to the Provost, a ‘helicopter parent’, is one who is overly involved with the life of his or her child/student on an ongoing basis even though his or her ‘little one’  has left the nest for college.  These helicopter parents tend to hover above their 20-year-olds and swoop down regularly to intercede on their child’s behalf at the first sign of concern or injustice.  They remain engaged, and are protectors in large and small matters with no sense of shame or the feeling that this might be inappropriate or over the top.  If their college student gets a B and the parent feels this unfair, the concerned parent comes charging, armed with cogent reasons why his or her child deserves something much better.

So…how did we get here?

There are multiple permutations of this type of behavior. But where it comes from is complex.  Funny…the very things that fashioned many of us into strong and resilient people we deny to our children.  Are we actually harming them by over-protecting them from the very things that produce character,  problem solving skills, good judgment and a healthy sense of self?  By rescuing them at every turn, we create a dependency that has no clear end in sight.

I first noticed this tendency in myself when we lived outside of Manhattan.  I was attending Ryan’s soccer game.  He was age 4, I believe.  In the first half of the game, I found myself standing in the middle of the soccer field yelling at Ryan to get engaged in the action. (He seemed delighted to be picking daisies rather than kicking goals!) I was shocked to see that I had become the type of father that I loathed observing previously. Yikes!!

At our recent PathNorth gathering in New York on an icy day in March, my partner and former Chairman of First Boston, Bill Mayer, shared some reflections on his own life.  I entitled his brief comments: Figuring It Out.

Bill described that his accomplished parents were pretty much absent during his early years.  In fact, when he was dropped off to begin school, he wasn’t quite sure exactly what to do.  He found some playmates and eventually followed them to class.  About 4 months later, it was discovered that Bill had gone to the 2nd grade class instead of 1st grade. But since he seemed to be doing well, they let him stay.  When asked how he navigated the 2nd grade when his parents did not jump in to ‘fix’ the problem and get him on track, Bill simply answered: “I just figured it out.” 

We all felt a bit uncomfortable when Bill went on to describe his life of figuring it out with little to no help from parents. Then he turned to us and said: many of you parents are robbing your children of learning the most important of life’s lessons: learning how to figure things out.

I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood that was close to one street of thugs and criminals.  Some days, as I walked close to that one street, I feared that I might bump into the wrong group of guys.  So I was alert and learned to relate to all types of people.  More than anything, I built a relationship with Jimmy Street who was a local ‘tough guy’ whom I knew would come to my aid if I were in trouble.  What if my parents had protected me from understanding the dangers of that street?  Wasn’t Jimmy Street a bad influence on me?  Shouldn’t we protect our children from any and all danger?  This was an early lesson in Realpolitik. (Dr. Kissinger would be proud!)

Glad my parents let me figure it out. 

When I first met Bill, he explained his marooned-on-an-island theory. He saw only two types of people who found themselves bereft on a remote island.  There were those who would dither, not know what to do, and eventually perish.  There was another group that would figure it out and find a way off the island.  I never asked Bill which he thought I was.

Guess I just need to figure it out.  Doug


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