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How to Stop Being a Helicopter Parent and Raise a Confident and Competent Kid

During her years as a teacher and mother, Ms. Meyers discovered that not all praise was equal and some kinds were even deleterious to kids.

When moms and dads over-parent, their kids grow up to be young adults who can't cope with everyday problems.

When moms and dads over-parent, their kids grow up to be young adults who can't cope with everyday problems.

Wanting to Parent Differently But Not Knowing How

When you grew up in a dysfunctional environment like my siblings and I did, you're at a distinct disadvantage when starting a family of your own. You have the motivation to parent differently than your mom and dad did, but you lack the skills. You're trying to swim but you've had no lessons. You watch with envy as others move past you, effortlessly doing freestyle and breast stroke, while you splash around violently trying to keep your head above water.

Parenting Without a Road Map

I watched my older sister struggle as a mom, bending over backward to give her children what we didn't get as kids. We didn't have parents who listened to us so she hung on to every word her youngsters uttered. We didn't have parents who encouraged our talents so she over-programmed hers with tennis lessons, sewing classes, horseback riding camps, and Spanish tutoring. We didn't have parents who were kind (dad called us names and mom turned a blind eye) so she created a cocoon for her kids, sheltering them from the harshness of the world. But, sadly, her kids became overly dependent and unprepared for life. I needed some other model to follow and the concept of respect jumped out at me.

Learning Respect Is a Two-Way Street

Growing up in a traditional Catholic household, showing respect was a one-way street—directed from child to parent. The 10 Commandments got drilled in our heads with number 5, “honor your father and mother,” always getting special emphasis. The notion that parents should also respect their children certainly never crossed my parents' minds and, if it had, would have been thoroughly rejected. So showing respect to my children seemed revolutionary—full of possibilities and potential. I decided to use it as a foundation for building a relationship with my kids in the following 5 ways:

1. Accepting Them for Who They Are

When pregnant with my son, I imagined the kind of kid he would be—always smiling and laughing, full of fun and mischief, loving and affectionate, playful and silly. But he was born with autism and none of those imaginings ever became reality. During the first five years of his life, he had an extremely flat affect and was highly sensitive to light, sound, and touch. I got a crash course in accepting a child for who he is, developing a fierce unconditional love for my sweet little guy. While depressing and heartbreaking at times, it set me up to appreciate both my boys in a deeper, more real way.

In The Conscious Parent, Dr. Shefali Tsabary talks about loving our children no matter what and honoring them as individuals. She writes:

“When you attune yourself to your child’s uniqueness, you realize it’s futile to try to parent with a cookie-cutter approach. Instead, each child requires something different from you. Some children need a parent to be soft and gentle, whereas others need the parent to be more assertive—even “in their face.” Once you accept your children’s basic nature, you can contour your style to meet their temperament. To do so means letting go of your fantasies of yourself as a certain kind of parent and instead evolving into the parent you need to be for the particular child in front of you.”

Dr. Shefali Tsabary Talks to Oprah about Accepting Our Children for Themselves, Not Idealized Versions of Ourselves

2. Not Over Parenting Them

Some parents think showing love for their kids means doing a lot for them—making their school lunches, researching their science fair projects, cleaning their bedrooms, buying them cars, and paying for college. I saw this with my sister who never required her kids to do chores, never set a bed time, and never had them get summer jobs. Now they're in their twenties, living at home, unable to transition into adulthood. With only the best intentions, she did too much for her kids, making them incompetent in the world.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Dean of Freshman at Stanford University, writes about the “over-parenting” phenomenon in her eye-opening book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. While Stanford has always attracted the best and brightest, Lythcott-Haims became troubled when encountering an increasing number of students who were unable to cope with everyday problems. She found what they had in common was overly involved parents. These helicopter moms and dads were invading the campus with questions and concerns about their kids' grades, roommate situations, and class schedules. They were disrespecting (and crippling) their adult children by refusing to step back and let them handle life.

3. Not Nagging Them

My mother nagged my younger brother throughout his childhood—to do his homework, clean his room, study for tests, fill out his college applications. Today he's 49 and she continues to pester him: “Why doesn't he go on Match.com to find a girlfriend? Why doesn't he paint his living room a new color? Why doesn't he take his dogs to obedience classes?” Watching this for half a century, I reached one undeniable conclusion: Nagging doesn't work!

Not only does it not work, but nagging shows disrespect and hurts the parent-child relationship. Psychologists say nagging is negative because it focuses on what the child is not doing. It's fault-finding and makes the youngster feel bad about himself. While my mother surely hoped the nagging would help her son become independent, it did just the opposite—making him overly reliant on her input and approval.

Nagging focuses on the negative—what the child isn't doing. Kids just tune it out after hearing it too much.

Nagging focuses on the negative—what the child isn't doing. Kids just tune it out after hearing it too much.

4. Loving Them, Not Lecturing Them

Lectures are ineffective because they typically come too late—after your son gets his 17-year-old girlfriend pregnant, after your daughter totals the car, after your kid gets an F on his report card. Respecting your child means having ongoing conversations about important topics: sex, drugs, academic performance, driving, career plans. It means making communication a two-way street, listening just as much as you speak.

My father rarely talked to my siblings and me except to lecture, sternly pointing out where we had failed. Being around him was a fearful experience and no warm, loving bond ever got established. Dr. Shefali Tsabary believes this kind of parental tyranny belongs in the past. She advocates a radical re-structuring of the parent-child relationship in which we see our children as mutual teachers, not mere subordinates.

5. Promoting Self-Reliance

If you drove around our neighborhood, you'd have no idea that lots of children live here. They're no kids playing in the park, shooting hoops in their driveways, pedaling bikes in the streets, or riding scooters on the sidewalks. Like many family-friendly neighborhoods in the United States, it's a virtual ghost town. That's because parents are fearful that down-time for their kids is a waste, insisting instead on shuttling them from one structured activity to another.

This excessive hovering, hand-holding, and over-directing is what Julie Lythcott-Haims warns against in her book. It creates young adults who are anxious, depressed, and unable to maneuver through life's problems. We show respect for our youngsters when we take a step back, let them make their own decisions, allow them to fail, pick themselves up, and forge their own way in the world.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on October 27, 2016:

Every time there's a teen suicide in our town it makes me freeze and think of how I'm parenting. There's so many young people dealing with anxiety and depression these days. We're doing something wrong, and we need to start figuring it out. I think we're making too many parenting decisions out of fear and not good sense. Thanks for reading, Bill. I always appreciate your support.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 27, 2016:

I saw such a change in parenting over my teaching years, and many of these lessons were missing from children I saw. Great points!