SALT LAKE CITY — Helicopter parenting may be less common than people think. And even when parents do hover a bit over their children — the hallmark of a helicopter parent — it's only harmful if their motivation is control rather than warmth.
That's according to new BYU research that warns parents to check the motivation behind their interactions with their offspring. Warmth is good, but controlling behavior creates bad outcomes for children. The study was published in the journal Emerging Adulthood and examined the relationship between young adults and their parents.
"Contrary to what we hear, we just didn’t find parents who were hovering too much. We found parents who were too controlling, and that was very damaging," said Laura Padilla-Walker, professor and associate dean in the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences at Brigham Young University.
The researchers defined helicopter parenting as doing for one's children what those kids are developmentally capable of doing on their own. They said parents should encourage children to do things themselves, stepping in only to provide needed guidance so children develop skills and confidence and see that moments of failure can be learning opportunities.
Examples of overreach include things like contacting a child's professor about grades or getting involved in a dispute with a child's roommate. Parents who find themselves lining up their offsprings' job interviews or ordering for them at restaurants should back off.
But those parents are outliers, according to Padilla-Walker and Larry Nelson, also a professor in BYU's School of Family Life. "Helicopter parenting just doesn't happen that often," Nelson said. "The small percentage who do it get the media attention because the stories are so unbelievable — as in the college admissions scandal. But it's such a small percentage."
Parents should be involved as their children move ever-closer to adulthood and independence, said Nelson. Involvement is not bad — unless it comes from parents wanting to control their children or overprotect them from consequences and determine all their outcomes.
"Is the parental involvement supporting the child and helping make the transition into adulthood, or is it controlling and manipulative?" he said.
Looking for hoverers
New stories abound about helicopter parents acting badly on behalf of their children. Who hasn't heard of the college admissions scandal involving, among others, Hollywood celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman? Just last week police had to break up brawling parents at a baseball game in Lakewood, Colorado, when one didn't like the call of a 13-year-old umpire and chaos ensued. The players were 7-year olds, according to an ABC News story and video.
The BYU research team looked at the interplay of three parenting traits, including warmth, control and helicoptering, and at three specific bad outcomes among kids: delinquency, low academic engagement and depression.
The research involved 458 emerging adults who filled out questionnaires at age 19 for the longitudinal Flourishing Families Project, including questions about themselves and questions about their parents.
Padilla-Walker said they expected to find a group of parents "with extremely high levels of helicoptering, but that group just didn’t emerge."
Instead, they found a small group (3 percent) of uninvolved parents and two groups that engaged in some helicoptering: Most parents (50-70 percent) were high on warmth and average on helicoptering — "which is low," Padilla-Walker said, and another 15-20 percent were high on control and also average (low) on helicoptering.
Based on these results, the researchers classified parents as “warm helicopter” parents (77 percent of mothers and half of fathers), “controlling helicopter” parents (20 percent of mothers, 12 percent of fathers), “low-involved” parents (3 percent of both genders), “average” fathers (30 percent), and “high controlling helicopter” fathers (4 percent).
"So basically we have warmth and controlling parents, and both use low levels of helicoptering, but it’s the warmth and control that are more predictive of child outcomes," Padilla-Walker said.
Children whose parents were categorized as "supportive and helicoptering" had far better outcomes than those with "controlling and helicoptering" parents. Kids of the latter group had the most negative outcomes in the study.
Both Nelson and Padilla-Walker said parents should not let fear of being helicopter parents prevent them from supporting their children in warm and helpful ways. The trick is not being overprotective or overbearing in ways that interfere with child development or keep children from a healthy life progression.
Finding the line
Padilla-Walker said it shouldn't be too hard for well-intentioned parents to figure out when they've crossed the line. "One clear indication is your child’s cues. If your child is telling you to back off, then it’s time to allow her to blaze her own trail, even if it means making mistakes."
It's harder to identify what's too much when a child asks for help that requires helicoptering, she noted.
"One principle that is important to follow is to avoid doing things FOR your child, and instead do things WITH him that he can’t do himself. Then gradually help less and less as your child learns the process and feels more confident. It is important to support our children, but it is also important for them to grow and learn skills and be allowed to fail on occasion. Then we are there to help them figure out what to learn from that failure, empowering them to make changes in their lives," said Padilla-Walker.
Across ages, people learn the most from their mistakes and shouldn't be prevented from making any, she said.
Nelson bristles at any notion that parents should back off entirely as their kids move into adulthood.
"We would never say to a 4-year old, 'Hey, you're 4. Good luck riding that bike.' We would never say to a 15-year-old, 'Well, you have your learner's permit. You're on your own to figure out how to drive a car.'"
But if you never let go of the back of the bike, a toddler doesn't learn to ride. And eventually a teen has to control the car in order to drive, he said.
"What a good parent does is provide that steadying hand while the child gets her balance on the bike, then they let go," said Nelson. "Well, this is the first time an 18- or 19-year old is making the transition into adulthood."
They need a steadying hand, too. He tells parents to listen, to discuss ideas with their kids when they have challenges and ask for help and to provide needed support. He notes a difference between letting an adult child live at home to avoid responsibility and doing it because the child is going to college and paying tuition or getting their first paycheck and needs a steadying hand.
The difference is whether you're helping them make progress, said Nelson.
Former BYU student Daye Son, now seeking a doctorate at Arizona State University, was also an author on the study.