We tend to think of helicopter parents as those nervous moms on the playground, hovering over their toddlers. Yet, today, the hovering doesn’t stop when kids grow up. For some helicopter parents, the need to hover becomes more intense as children age and they continue to try to give their children a leg up in the world.
Writing in The Atlantic, Laura Hamilton touched on a new helicoptering phenomenon among college-aged children and their parents, wherein universities now increasingly rely on involved parents to help shepherd their kids through school.
“Professional-oriented helicopter parents like Andrea left nothing to chance—she began reviewing the dental graduate-school application process before college even began, and ensured that her daughter acquired the right experiences to secure a spot in a top institution. When a wealthy boyfriend nearly caused her daughter to fail organic chemistry, Andrea gently nudged him out of the picture by encouraging her daughter to focus on academics and friends instead. Dental school became a parental project—as her husband noted, “I’m happy because the way we did it worked out in terms of her being admitted to the graduate programs she wanted. I think the decisions we made were the right decisions.”
Of course, it begins before college. Consider Laura Clydesdale, a mother and blogger who lives in Berkeley, California, who recently wrote a piece for The Washington Post about her decision to send her kids to sleep-away camp, which she claims gives them a competitive advantage over other kids.
“We [send them to sleep-away camp] because we truly think it will help our kids be successful in life. With under-employment and a stagnating labor market looming in their future, an all-around, sleep-away summer camp is one of the best competitive advantages we can give our children.”
Clydesdale claims that some people have told her she’s making a terrible mistake by sending her kids to camp and letting them miss out on “résumé-building” summer activities such as internships, sports and academic camps, and SAT and ACT prep classes.
But instead of defending her choice as one that allows her children to get away from their regular schedule (and also gives her a break) for a few months, Clydesdale constructs a complicated narrative suggesting she’s making the better decision for her children’s futures and doing more to help her kids in terms of future marketability than parents who choose the more traditional “résumé-building” activities that often fill privileged kids’ summer breaks.
Clydesdale admits that her kids are overscheduled during the school year, describing “intensely packed schedules full of sports, music, art classes, community service and technological stimulation.” Yet, she never once considers that the solution is maybe, just maybe, eliminating some of those activities during the year. Instead, the solution is to continue that neck-breaking pace each year and then pay a significant amount of money to give her kids some “quiet mental space” at sleep-away camp over the summer.
Interestingly, Clydesdale cites and clearly understands the latest research that shows benefits to giving kids more open-ended time. She even quotes Harvard’s Dean of Admissions who, in an open letter to parents, implored them to let children relax during the summer break or—even more out of the ordinary—let them get a summer job. In other words: to let them do what a whole lot of us did as kids.
But Clydesdale doesn’t let her kids relax. She doesn’t tell them to apply for a summer job at the ice cream shop around the corner. Instead, she tells herself that she’s giving her kids a break when, in reality, she’s exactly the same as the mothers she derides. She’s just controlling her kids in a different way. Clydesdale says that while her children are away at sleep-away camp, they will “explore, perform skits they wrote themselves and make those endless friendship bracelets to tie onto the wrists of lifelong friends.” What she seems to forget is that these activities will all be scheduled by the camp counselors, and her kids’ time will be carefully managed and manipulated. She’s not sending them to some rustic camp in the mountains where they’ll have to fend for themselves for two months, Bear Grylls-style.
Clydesdale says her children will return home with “gobs of creativity and independence” and that “they’ll be more comfortable with who they are as people.” That’s nice. And no one should criticize this woman for choosing sleep-away camp for her kids. But Clydesdale also shouldn’t dress this up as some sort of brave or rebellious decision.
Clydesdale’s kids are going to be overscheduled at camp, just like they are overscheduled during the school year. If Clydesdale really wanted to be cutting-edge, she’d do what many parents of lesser means do each summer—let her kids lay on the couch, wander the neighborhood, knock on their friends’ front doors to see if they want to come out to play, ride their bikes to a local playground, and even watch television while munching on Cheetos.
In an age of helicopter parenting, that’s genuine rebellion.