Helicopters are a great invention. They have provided access to remote or hard-to-get-to places. They are used for transporting patients experiencing medical emergencies.
But helicopter parents are not a good thing.
What are helicopter parents?
The dictionary definition is “a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.”
They “hover” over the son or daughter, ready to swoop in and intervene when a problem arises.
(A more extreme version is the “lawnmower parent” who mows down any potential issue before it emerges.)
You might have heard this term applied to parents with regard to academics, as they intervene on behalf of the student/child with teachers — or even college professors. Some even try to sit in on their grown children’s job interviews.
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That parenting style is being seen more often today in youth and high school sports, even among parents who aren’t that way in other aspects of their children’s endeavors.
“Sports once may have been just about getting kids out of the house and moving,” said Danielle Johnson, a Wellness Physical Therapist in the Mayo Clinic Department of Medicine’s Healthy Living Program.
“Sports today tend to be more expensive and can require a huge time commitment from kids and parents just to feel they are staying competitive with their peers. With this big of an investment on the line, it’s easy for parents to slip into being too heavily involved. This new environment of sport seems to bring out the ‘helicopter parent’ in many people who would not consider themselves overly involved in other avenues of their kids’ lives.”
“At the heart of it all, ‘helicopter parents’ just want the best for their kids. Parents all want to make sure that their kids are successful and have access to all the opportunities that life or sport can bring. But being overly involved may have detrimental effects on our kids as athletes and as they develop the skills for being adults.”
Sue Enquist, who retired after a very successful 27-year career as UCLA softball coach, says overly protective parents keep their child from learning how to manage their time, solve their own problems and to think independently.
“Parents of high-performing athletes provide independence for their child,” she said. “Being a helicopter parent is extremely attractive, because in highly competitive sports, it seems like the helicopter parent gets more, creates more. But in the long-run, they do a disservice to their athletes.”
That disservice extends to the prized goal of a college scholarship that the “hovering” is designed to enable.
“People don’t realize that the college coach is evaluating the family in the parking lot,” Enquist said. “I want to tell every single parent, please pay attention to how you think, speak and act, because the college coach is taking notice.”
Helicopter parenting hinders development of many of the benefits that young athletes — even those who don’t go on to play in college — should be reaping, according to Johnson.
“Sometimes the most well intentioned parent comments or over involvement can rob our kids of many wonderful lessons they can learn from sport. Sports are a great metaphor for life,” she said. “Athletes gain confidence with successes and learn to grow from failures. They learn discipline, intrinsic motivation and independence by participating in sport. Even with the best of intentions, when parents become overly involved, some of these lessons may be diminished.”
How can you tell if you might be helicoptering?
“A great question to ask yourself when parenting a young athlete is ‘what is your role?’ “ Johnson said.
“We each play a role in athletics: the parent, the coach, and the child. Are you trying to be the coach? Are your comments helpful? Are your comments or actions taking away from a lesson that sports could teach your child about being a great adult? Are there things you are doing for your child that they could do to themselves to learn discipline, self-confidence, and intrinsic motivation if you only allowed them to succeed or fail on their own?”
Should your self-diagnosis lead you to conclude you’re not only intervening when issues arise, you’re pre-emptively cutting them down — being a “lawnmower parent” — take this heed:
“The perception or attempt to remove all obstacles from a child’s life obviously has societal ramifications that go far beyond sport,” Johnson said. “Life has many obstacles; it can be hard for parents to watch their kids deal with difficulties. However, learning how to grow from times of hardship in sport can help kids build confidence to deal with obstacles they will face in life.”
The role of a parent who is also coaching his or her child is even more complicated.
“Staying in your role can become tricky when the parent is the coach,” Johnson said. “Making sure you are checking in with your athlete as a parent — not just as a coach — when away from the field, rink, or pool can ensure your athlete is comfortable with this relationship.
“Being a parent-coach can be a great experience for everyone when some boundaries are maintained.”
Unfortunately, a helicopter parent who isn’t also the coach can harm the young athlete’s relationship with the coach by undermining them (“Your coach is wrong. You should be playing more”), and worse.
“Just as helicopter parents hover over their children, many parents hover over coaches and allow them little freedom to exercise their discretions,” Jessica Skolnikoff and Robert Engvall write in their book “Young Athletes, Couch Potatoes and Helicopter Parents.”
“Nearly all of the coaches we’ve spoken with regarding youth sports have suggested the reason they ultimately quit coaching, or at least frequently consider quitting, is not because of the players, but because of the parents.”