Ten years ago this September, I packed my only child up and delivered her to college. It wasn’t as complicated as organizing the Normandy invasion but it did require some critical thinking. As we moved her into the dorm, it was hard not to notice that Millennials don’t travel light. I sat on the bed as my daughter unpacked, watching the other mother in the room carefully refold her daughter’s clothes in the dresser after she’d lined the drawers. She hung every garment in the closet—each hanger facing inward—and then put toiletries in a shower caddy. We went to lunch and when we came back, this mother was just finishing up hanging up posters, tacking photos to a cork board, and arranging toss pillows. Her daughter was in the hall talking to other freshmen while her mother made sure everything in her corner had a place.
Then her daughter came back in and re-arranged the desk. The mother got up and put everything back where she’d had it. The girl scowled but shrugged her shoulders. The third roommate and her mother announced that they’d found the washers and dryers. The organizing mother answered:”Ceci won’t be needing that. She’s never done her own laundry. I hired a laundry in town to do it for her.”
On the long drive home, I wondered out loud how this mother was going to relinquish control and how her daughter was going to handle relative independence. It turned out neither could. The girl was back in her childhood bedroom by January.
Why mothers hover
Mothering is hard precisely because what works well at one age—say dealing with a toddler or a child in pre-K—is a disaster at another stage of development. Having the mental flexibility to be able to shift gears and behave differently during the course of the more than two decades it takes to launch a child is an enormous challenge.
Which brings me to hovering aka helicoptering aka controlling parenting which, thanks to cell phones and electronic communication, no longer even requires physical proximity. At what point does a mother need to pull back and acknowledge that she’s simply doing too much for her child? The answer? Every time a child reaches another developmental stage.
What hovering really teaches your child
You may be hovering out of genuine concern because your kid is flailing or because your own anxiety about outcomes and success tends to overwhelm you but the lessons imparted by this kind of parenting are these: You won’t make it without me, you’re bound to fail if you don’t get support, you don’t have the right stuff to succeed, nothing you come up with on your own is good enough. This may not be the message you intend to deliver but it’s the subtext of everything you do for your child that she could actually do for herself.
Of course, hovering imparts other lessons as well which directly impact a child’s resilience. By emphasizing outcomes—getting the As, being the best at everything you do, winning every game, making sure you never fail—this kind of parenting doesn’t teach a child how to process or deal with a setback. It doesn’t show her that effort has meaning or that diligence is valuable, no matter what the outcome. It sacrifices the experience of the journey by only caring whether the destination’s been reached. Not only is the child less resilient—likely to fall apart if the goal isn’t reached and lacking the skillset to recover—but she’s more likely to consider cheating or shortcutting or some other expedient means to get to the desired goal.
If this sounds alarmist to you, consider that Donald McCabe of Rutgers found that a whopping 64% of high school students admitted to cheating on a test, 58% admitted to plagiarism, and 95% admitted to some form of cheating in a survey of 24,000. That makes cheating the norm, not the exception. Additionally, 36% of undergraduates and 24% of graduate students admitted to copying or paraphrasing from the Internet without attribution.
Mind you, there isn’t a school in the country that doesn’t have an honor code or clear-cut definitions of what constitutes plagiarism or cheating.
As to resilience, in 2015 article by Robin Wilson in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “An Epidemic of Anguish” issued a clarion call for the strain colleges and universities are under to provide mental health care and to act as substitute parents. She noted that while some of these students suffer from depression and anxiety, many struggle with what used to be considered the normal stresses of the college experience—bad grades, romantic breakups, being on your own for the first time.
Dr. Peter Gray, after reviewing current research, concluded that helicopter parenting was, indeed, a factor in reduced resilience in young people but suggested a more dyadic process, writing that:
“It is quite possible, maybe even probable, that the causation is at least partly in the reverse direction—poor coping on the part of the child may cause parents to become highly protective and controlling. My guess is that the causation goes in both directions, creating something of a vicious cycle: Over-parenting results in poor coping, which results in more over-parenting, which results in continued poor coping.”
Resilience, failure, and the fear of failure
While a hovering parent may think that she’s motivating her child, the truth is that she’s not teaching her child to reach high and chase her aspirations because those things are risky and always involve potential failure. Instead, she’s instructing her child to avoid failure at all costs. In the terms proposed by Andrew Elliot and Todd Thrash to describe basic personality traits, that child becomes avoidance-oriented; the more resilient risk-taker is motivated by approach goals. The first sees the mountain and sees only a series of potential pitfalls to be avoided; the second sees the mountain, plans the route, and prepares to bounce back if the worst happens.
Andrew Elliot and Todd Thrash also studied how mothers transmitted fear of failure to their children and posited that it was love withdrawal, making the child feel ashamed or less than, that produced fear of failure as a motivator. Mind you, the researchers didn’t think this was conscious maternal behavior but a function of the mother’s own reactivity and her own fear of failure. How was the threat of love withdrawal communicated? By a stony face, physical withdrawal, expressions of extreme displeasure, sometimes banishing the child to another room. And, yes, Elliot and Thrash found a direct link between the mother’s fear of failure and their college-age children’s adoption of avoidance goals and own fear of failure. Fathers, it should be said, didn’t use the threat of love withdrawal.
Is never helping the answer to hovering?
Well, if hovering is bad, is there ever a time to intervene? I think so when your kid has done every she can to resolve a problem on her own. Going into senior year, my daughter was unable to get into a science class she needed to be able to graduate. The professor wouldn’t budge on the maximum number of students, or take into account that she was a senior while sophomores and rising juniors had been admitted. Her only other option was summer school if she didn’t get that class. In the end, I called the Dean.
The Dean was surprised to hear from me because she didn’t know me. After all, my daughter had been there for three years. She laughed, saying I was late to the party so I asked, “Was this a party I was supposed to be at? I thought this was my daughter’s party.” I then learned that she and her colleagues had heard from the majority of parents, half of them regularly. I said,” I thought this was stuff she was supposed to figure out on her own.” The Dean laughed and said,” Well, yes, but you’re pretty much on your own thinking that.” And, yes, she got into the science class and graduated.
Doing for yourself and, yes, sometimes messing up and having to work through it are all important life lessons for children. We all need to make sure we’re not getting in the way of their learning.
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Photograph by Antonio Lapa. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
For more on Dr. McCabe’s work and statistics, go to www.plagiarism.org
Wilson, Robin, “Epidemic of Anguish,” Chronicle of Higher Education (August 31, 2015)
Gray, Peter, “Helicopter Parenting and College Students’ Increased Neediness,” PsychologyToday.com
Eliot, Andrew and Todd M. Thrash, “Approach and Avoidance Temperament as Basic Dimensions of Personality,” Journal of Personality, 78, no.2 (June 2010): 865-906
Elliot, Andrew and Todd Thrash, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Fear of Failure,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2004), vol. 30, no,8, 957-971,