In Defense of Helicopter Parents

Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at Duke University and a blogger at Psychology Today, recently conducted a very interesting interview with writer and thinker Brink Lindsey. Lindsey has written a book titled Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter, and he comments:

“The more complex our society gets, the more challenging the task of preparing children for adulthood becomes.  Our brains are hard-wired for a world where we only interact with about 150 other people, the only knowledge we have access to is stored in their heads, and choice about how to live your life is virtually nonexistent. So the amount of cultural adaptation that has to be instilled is huge, and thus parents have a much bigger job than they used to.

Among the highly skilled, parents have responded with a big ratcheting up of their commitment to their kids:  divorce rates have plummeted, and time spent with kids has increased sharply.

For everybody else, though, things have been moving in the opposite direction because of rapidly increasing single motherhood and divorce rates. We can hope that over time the culture of ‘concerted cultivation’—that’s what sociologist Annette Lareau calls the new parental focus on developing useful skills in their kids—will spread more broadly.

But it is beyond the scope of public policy to ‘fix’ the parent gap.  We can compensate for it and mitigate its effects. We need public policies that will encourage broad-based human capital development, especially for children of non-college-educated parents.  The main social institutions for developing human capital—and for compensating for family- and community-based deficits—are our schools, and they are failing badly.

Instead of mitigating class-based differences, primary and secondary schooling in America today simply perpetuates those differences:  kids today show up at pre-K with big class-based differences in test scores and school readiness, and those gaps only grow wider as kids go through school.” (Read more here.)

We can mock and complain about “helicopter parents” all we want, but Lindsey is right that the complexity of our world does require intense parental investment if offspring are to succeed in their adult lives. Indeed, Lindsey has written elsewhere that what we need are more helicopter parents.

What do you think—do you agree?

One Response to “In Defense of Helicopter Parents”

  1. Right now I’m researching ways to help leaders connect more effectively with Gen Y in the workplace, so this is a timely and nicely counterintuitive post.

    This makes me realize that “helicopter parents” are thought of too stereotypically. It sounds like Lindsey is try to reclaim the term to mean something more positive.

    Here’s what I think: There are different types of helicopter parents. There is a big difference between those who approach parenting as “teaching their kids to fish” versus those who are doing the fishing for them.

    For example, there is a big difference between coaching your kid on how to find a job or internship–teaching them how to write a resume, how to network, how to interview, and so on–versus doing all of that for them. It’s one thing to coach your college student kid on how to have a conversation with a prof about a bad grade or an employer about being underutilized at work… and another to contact that professor or employer to have that conversation yourself.

    Through the media, we mostly hear outrageous examples of helicopter parents who, say, want to go to work on the first day with their 23-year-old recent graduate… but if we’re talking about parents who are coaching their kids on all sorts of cognitive, social, and emotional issues, then we definitely do need more helicopter parents like that.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for The Brilliant Report, a monthly newsletter full of the latest findings on how to learn smarter:

Close