Helicopter moms, heading for a crash

By Margaret K. Nelson
Sunday, July 4, 2010

A woman I'll call Erica, a 45-year-old mother of three, has a system for monitoring her children's television and movie watching. Three systems, actually: one for the 9-year-old, one for the 13-year-old and one for the 16-year-old. To implement these systems, she told me, she often watches television with her children. She also tries, when possible, to accompany them to movies outside the home. Finally, she requires them to discuss with her the content of what they've seen, whether she watched it with them or they viewed it alone.

When people worry about today's hyper-involved parenting -- or helicopter parenting, as some have dubbed it, for its constant hovering -- that worry is almost always directed at children. Critics fret that the children of helicopter parents will lack maturity, self-reliance, self-esteem and good old-fashioned gumption.

For example, a recent study of 300 college freshmen by Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College, found that students with helicopter parents (10 percent of those surveyed) were more dependent, more neurotic and less open than other students. Another report, by my colleague Barbara Hofer, a psychologist at Middlebury College, found a connection between how frequently Middlebury students communicate with their parents and how dependent they are on their parents.

But after interviewing nearly 100 parents for my own research on contemporary parenting practices, I'm more worried about the mothers. Erica's TV policy is not just exhaustive; it sounds exhausting. And among the affluent parents who take similar approaches to child-rearing, TV is just the beginning. The same kind of intense, highly personalized care goes into overseeing children's computer use, friendships, extracurricular activities and, above all, schoolwork.

This type of parenting isn't practiced by all: American parenting styles are starkly divided by class. Compared with professional, middle-class parents, parents of lower educational and professional status are more likely to impose nonnegotiable limits on their children's behavior. Rather than sitting down and watching television with their children, for example, they simply block certain channels. Rather than looking over a child's shoulder while he or she is using the computer, they rely on a software filter that prevents access to certain Internet sites.

Helicopter parenting is, to put it mildly, more time-consuming and more emotionally demanding than other parenting styles. And much of its work falls (as the work of parenting always has) on women. Since 1965, the amount of time mothers spend on all child-care activities has risen, even though the majority of mothers are now in the labor force; the increase has been particularly sharp among highly educated mothers.

So it's not just that today's professional mothers are holding down what would, in the 1960s, have been two separate jobs -- one inside the home, the other outside it. It's that the first of those jobs is a lot more taxing than it used to be. Mothers who try to live up to the new parenting standards of the professional middle class seem to have few options: They can overwork themselves, or they can leave the workforce.

Although women don't opt out of employment as often as is sometimes supposed, those who do tend to give two main explanations. The workplace is still not particularly flexible or family-friendly, they say, and parenting has become more intensive and more demanding than ever. But these women may find themselves trying to justify their decision -- and approaching child-rearing as a full-time, totally consuming job provides such a justification. At this point, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating: Professional women bring considerable skills to raising children, and because they do it so conscientiously, they may set trends for other parents.

For those helicopter mothers who don't leave the workplace, personal relationships seem to be the first thing to go. Working a demanding job while paying painstaking attention to one's children leaves little time for maintaining a marriage. A study by Robin Wilson of the Washington and Lee University School of Law reports that women with MBAs get divorced or separated more often than those who have only a bachelor's degree, while women with law or medical degrees are more likely to divorce or separate than their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, according to sociologists Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson and Melissa Milkie, adults in 2000 spent less time with their spouses than adults did in 1975, as they spent more time at work and more time with their children. The higher divorce rate among women with high-pressure careers could therefore be both a cause and a consequence of intense devotion to one's children: These mothers may find that the only reliable, and persistent, relationships are those with their kids.

When people turn inward to their families, their communities also pay a high price. In a series of studies, sociologists Naomi Gerstel, Sally Gallagher and Natalia Sarkisian have shown that, parenting practices notwithstanding, marriage is a greedy institution. Compared with singles, married people are less likely to visit relatives, less likely to take care of elderly parents and less involved with neighbors and friends.

I suspect that the tendency to turn inward must be even more intense among hyper-vigilant parents. And this withdrawal may extend to parents' broader social and civic engagement. These days, we don't just bowl alone, as the political scientist Robert Putnam famously argued; we devote less energy to the PTA, to local politics, to charity.

And to friendship. The time married parents spend visiting with friends and relatives outside the nuclear family has declined dramatically: Married fathers spent almost 40 percent less time and married mothers spent almost a third less time socializing in 2000 than they did in 1965, according to Bianchi, Robinson and Milkie. I can't help but think that the new intensity of daily life is part of the problem. Parents seem to have few opportunities to pursue friendships unless they are friendships that take little extra time (as with co-workers or other parents on the sideline of a child's sporting event).

Many of the helicopter mothers I've spoken to have told me, often with pride in their voices, that their daughters are their best friends. At first, I wondered why these women -- some of them in their late 40s or 50s -- wouldn't prefer to spend their free time with people their own age. But as I looked more closely at the way they are tackling parenthood, I understood: They have no free time.


Margaret K. Nelson is the A. Barton Hepburn professor of sociology at Middlebury College and the author of "Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times."

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