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Helicopter Parents and the Kids Who Just Can't

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Sometimes I despair for the kids these days, I really do.

I didn't expect to feel this way at the tender age of 42. I was supposed to find them puzzling, with their Snapchatting and their Venmo and never looking up from their phones. I was supposed to think they were having too much sex or doing too many drugs and not listening to their wiser elders, gosh darn it. I was supposed to grouse that young people are always getting themselves into trouble.

Instead I'm worried that they aren't getting themselves into enough trouble. They seem so fragile. They can't read Ovid without a trigger warning and a pair of latex gloves, or go off to college without calling their parents to check in. Did no one ever take them aside and explain that college is for abandoning your parents, leaving them to worry about what you are doing with their money while you forget to call them for a month at a time ? There is something truly terrifying about a generation of younger people that craves more adult intervention into their lives. Yet, that's what everyone from teachers to employers  reports: a rising number of kids who seek to be tethered to their parents, and don't seem to know what to do unless Mom or Dad is hovering nearby.

I know, I know. People have been worrying about The Kids These Days since time immemorial. And yet, older people I talk to -- ones old enough to remember seeing the low-speed, low-stakes train wreck that was my own generation hurtling through college and into the workforce -- confirm my impression that This Time Really Is Different. The upper stratum of the Trophy Kids really are going into college expecting to live in a sort of Nerf universe where nothing ever really hurts, and there's always an adult to pick them up and put them back on track. And they're coming out into the workforce expecting the same sort of personal concierge service from a world that, as I was myself dismayed to find 20 years ago, really doesn't have time to care how they feel. 

Not that I blame the kids for this. Their parents are the ones who did it to them, hovering over them every spare minute -- and in those rare moments when they have some time off from the endless commute between soccer practice and enrichment activities, calling the cops on anyone who leaves an 11-year-old outside to play basketball for an hour, so that their parents will have to hover too.

All this helicoptering is supposed to help the kids. And yet, raising kids who have never experienced a serious setback is not really helping them, as Julie Lythcott-Haims points out at Slate. "As parents, our intentions are sound — more than sound," she writes. "We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is 'best' for our kids is completely out of whack. We don't want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we're willing to take real chances with their mental health?" Lythcott-Haims goes on to point out a growing body of research that cannot prove, but certainly suggests strongly, that all this protection is making kids more mentally fragile. Hovering robs kids of resilience and what psychologists call "self-efficacy": the sense that they themselves are capable of producing the outcomes they want. They're used to functioning as closely supervised extensions of their parents, not autonomous adults.

That will get you through college, but it cannot get you through life. Eventually, life is going to whack your kids with the reality stick, no matter how assiduously you strive to protect them from it. The way to assure that the blow is not fatal is not to step between them and what's coming, but by letting go of them earlier. Childhood should be the time when it's okay to fall down, because there's someone around who can set limits to make sure you don't do anything too dangerous, and help you fix it if things go wrong.

When I was on my book tour, as I've written before, a high school girl approached me and explained that while daring greatly and failing occasionally might be splendid in theory, she couldn't possibly afford to take any risks, because she was in an International Baccalaureate program where 4.0 GPAs were few and far between. This girl was 15. If you can't afford a single mistake at the age of 15, just when will be the right time to take some risks? When you're shopping for headstones?

Even if we don't realize what we're doing to our kids, the kids themselves seem to; Lythcott-Haims reports that they're increasingly anxious and depressed and relying on chemical assistance to help them cope with their dread.

But we can't only blame the parents. Parents are hovering to cope with their own fears, such as the (completely false) sense they get from our modern news blizzard that the world is an extremely dangerous place for children. And their fear that the current economy, with the ever-higher educational hurdles that we've placed between high school graduates and stable, well-paying jobs, they simply can't afford to give their kids the freedom to fail, even if the hovering comes at the cost of building psychological strength and character.

There's a flip side to this endless campaign to ensure that your children will be happy and economically secure. While middle-class kids are rarely allowed to fail, the economically disadvantaged are rarely allowed to succeed. The middle-class parents' desperate grasp for more or continued privilege is harmful to their kids and to all the other kids.

The movement for free-range parenting is a good start toward building a better childhood for our kids. But it probably won't succeed without rethinking a lot of broader trends, from legal liability to our hypertrophied education system, that have gone into constructing the Nerf universe.

  1. I do not recommend going longer than this. I can't tell you how I know this, but I can say that if you do go longer than a month, your parents pay you a surprise visit at the moment when your room, with its overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles of Yuengling lager, is least prepared to receive them.

  2. See, for example, parents who have started to show up to job interviews.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net