Surprise! Adult Children Like Helicopter Parents—and Benefit from Them
Researchers Puncture the Myth That Parents Who Help Their Young Adult Children are Smothering Them
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In 1969, Haim Ginott, an Israeli-born schoolteacher and child psychologist who became the “resident psychologist” on NBC’s The Today Show, published a book called Between Parent and Child. Though little known today, the book stayed on the bestseller list for more than a year. It also played a largely forgotten role in one of the most ubiquitous insults of our time.
In the book, Ginott quotes a teenager who complains, “Mother hovers over me like a helicopter.” That quote is the earliest known connection between parenting and helicoptering. Two decades later, the term helicopter parent began to appear in wide circulation, and by the 2000s, it became a near-universal term among American academic administrators who complained that the parents of the earliest millennials were smothering their college-age children and overwhelming well-meaning professionals.
Photo credit Amazon
“You didn’t call on my student in class today. How dare you!”
“Um, who are you, and why are you calling me? Your child is not in kindergarten anymore. They’re in university!”
The clear implication in this usage: Intense parental support is aberrant and detrimental.
There’s only one problem: Few people bothered to check with the children themselves.
Karen Fingerman set out to solve that problem. Along with five colleagues, Professor Fingerman, a distinguished scholar in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin (and the co-author of one of my favorite books on contemporary psychology, Consequential Strangers), published a study in The Journal of Marriage and Family called “Helicopter Parenting and Landing Pad Kids.”
“Popular media describe adverse effects of helicopter parents who provide intense support to grown children," the authors write, "but few studies have examined implications of such intense support."
Professor Fingerman and her team assembled a representative group of 592 young people, with an average age of 24, and their parents, who had an average age of 51. While the researchers acknowledged that the 21st century has seen “substantial shifts” in early adulthood, with more children experiencing “prolonged transitions to adulthood,” they were curious how the children viewed this new norm. They hypothesized that children might view their ongoing close relationship with their parents as acceptable, even if their parents, who remember their more hands-off young adulthoods, do not.
(During the pandemic, the percentage of young people living with their parents, which had already reached record levels of around 40 percent in 2019, peaked at 52 percent.)
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In fact, the researchers found much more. Helicoptering actually helped young people. “Frequent parental involvement, including a wide range of support, was associated with better well-being for young adults.” The most effective types of support, they discovered, included personal contact, emotional reassurance, life advice, even financial assistance. While only one in five parents actually met this standard, the children of those parents were more well-adjusted and had a “better sense of goals and higher life satisfaction.”
But there was a catch. Even the children who benefited from being in close contact with their parents were ambivalent about this continued interaction; many viewed it as “too much.” Their parents agreed. They, too, had internalized all the negative associations with helicoptering. The researchers were especially perplexed by this dynamic: The children who experienced more parental involvement were happier, but both they and their parents felt unhappy about this situation.
All the popular moaning about helicoptering, in other words, had turned what was objectively a positive trait into one that both sides found objectionable.
Photo courtesy of Brooklyn College
As Professor Fingerman and her colleagues write, “Despite popular conceptions that intense parental support prevents grown children from launching successfully, the results of this study suggest the opposite conclusion.” Even more, those results suggest it’s time to park these harmful myths about overparenting and time instead to break out the helicopters. Emotional support from family members, from listening to nudging to loving, is welcome at all times of life. Especially now, when the crosswinds of daily life are blowing more fiercely than ever, we don’t need fewer loved ones hovering around us.
We need more.
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