In Defense of Helicopter Parenting

Friday, April 04, 2014

What's so bad about being overly involved? Alfie Kohn, author of 12 books, including The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2014), takes issue with the view that today's children are entitled.


Even if a lot of parents were permissive and a lot of children were self-­centered, these phenomena are not necessarily related. Those who criticize what they see as an indulgent style of child-rearing are obliged to show, rather than merely assume, that it explains the characteristics in children they find troubling.

There’s nothing new about trying to link undesired out-comes to insufficiently traditional parenting. Indeed, the entire 1960s counterculture was attributed to parents—well, let’s just say “blamed on” parents, given the assessment of that counterculture by those who did the attributing. Specifically, the fault was said to lie with moms and dads who supposedly let their offspring have their way too often. This connection seems to have been sparked in the spring of 1968 by a New York Times Magazine essay called “Is It All Dr. Spock’s Fault?” written by a young sociologist named Christopher Jencks. “The new ethos . . . on leading college campuses,” he declared, is the result of “upper-middle-class children who . . . are mostly products of permissive homes.”

The trouble was, the homes that Jencks proceeded to describe—and it’s not clear how common they actually were—didn’t seem permissive so much as simply respectful of children. They were defined by hands-on parenting, but the active involvement consisted of justifying rules on their merits (rather than demanding absolute obedience), listening to kids’ reasons, and involving them in decision making. As Jencks saw it, these parents still relied on discipline to elicit compliance, but it was a version based more on wielding disapproval and guilt than on the crude employment of power.

Furthermore, despite his article’s title (which was likely supplied by an editor), Jencks didn’t entirely condemn what was happening on college campuses or the new generation’s resistance to authoritarian institutions. But a parade of conservatives who appropriated his thesis certainly did. For example, Spiro Agnew, soon to be Richard Nixon’s vice president, turned this issue into one of his signature campaign tropes, blasting student radicals as “spoiled brats who have never had a good spanking. . . . [Their] parents learned their Dr. Spock and threw discipline out the window.”

One inconvenient fact for such critics, which didn’t escape Jencks’s notice, is that some of the products of those allegedly permissive households ended up to the political right of their parents, challenging the established order as rebellious Goldwater conservatives. But an even more decisive rejoinder to the basic argument is that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support it; indeed, there were several good reasons to question its plausibility. Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out that the young activists “were far from being the stereotyped products of permissiveness. In fact, they were no doubt among the hardest-working, most disciplined members of their generation.” Moreover, a social scientist who reviewed some empirical investigations of the issue found that they “demonstrated rather clearly that the political activity of young people . . . shows no substantial relationship with ‘permissiveness.’”

People with a strong distaste for what they viewed as indulgent parenting couldn’t substantiate their contention that it bred political radicalism, so eventually a new charge was dredged up: Such parenting was now said to have produced a generation of narcissists. (Similarly, we’re told, “Today, punishment has a bad reputation” and the result is that we find ourselves with “self-indulgent, out-of-control children.”) Is there any evidence to support these claims? As we’ve seen, the contention that there is more narcissism or self-indulgence in this generation doesn’t hold water, but it’s still possible that, to whatever extent some young people do turn out that way, it’s because of how they were raised.

Most writing about the childhood roots of narcissism is theoretical or based on clinical case studies. Psychoanalysts tend to argue that a lack of parental love and empathy, a diet of coldness and indifference, is what produces narcissists. Grandiosity is an attempt to compensate for the care one failed to receive as a child. By contrast, theorists who believe that a parent’s approval should have to be earned, and should be used to reinforce desired behaviors, are inclined to think that “noncontingent” or excessive praise would permanently swell the little ones’ heads.

It would be reassuring to be able to report that research offers a definitive verdict on the matter, but that’s not the case. As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible to “prove” that narcissism is a product of just about any parenting style depending on which aspects of the diagnosis are emphasized. Moreover, the handful of studies that have been conducted are small, and their methodology doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence: One or two hundred college students are given a fifteen- or thirty-minute questionnaire that’s designed to tap narcissistic qualities and that asks about how they were raised. That’s pretty much it. Apart from the doubts one may entertain about the accuracy of a twenty-year-old’s memories of early childhood, self-report measures are often problematic—and particularly so, for obvious reasons, when we’re asking narcissists to describe themselves.

In any case, the effects in most of these studies aren’t particularly large, even when they reach conventional levels of statistical significance. When viewed together, moreover, the results are actually inconsistent. If there’s any generalization to be made about this line of research, it’s that children who score (a little) higher on measures of narcissism are at least as likely to have been raised by strict or cold parents as by permissive or overindulgent parents. Meanwhile, “healthy, adaptive narcissism in young adulthood is predicted by early gratification of physical and psychological needs.”

And what about outcomes that are less serious than narcissism, even if they’re still troubling? Can permissiveness be held responsible for these? Some proclamations along these lines seem like common sense, but that may be because they’re based on circular reasoning: “Spoiling kids produces spoiled kids.” Hard evidence is hard to come by, but one large study, published in Pediatrics, did turn up an interesting result. When parents of three-year-olds were questioned, there was indeed something they did that correlated strongly with the likelihood that their children, two years later, would be unusually loud, disobedient, argumentative, demanding, and mean. However, it wasn’t indulgent parenting that contributed significantly to this profile of the classic spoiled kid. It was the use of spanking.

By the same token, if we believed that young people lacked empathy, what generalization, if any, might we tentatively offer about how they were probably raised? Well, we’ve had the answer to that question for many years: Look for old-school parenting, precisely the sort that conservative critics of our “permissive” age recommend. It’s easy to parody liberal “let’s talk it out” child rearing, but the greater danger—and the far more common reality—is for kids to be bullied or bribed into obedience. The result is that they may never progress beyond the level of pure self-interest. (I’ll say more in the following chapter about what does promote empathy and concern for others.)

It’s also possible that self-centeredness is connected to the extraordinary emphasis on achievement and winning in contemporary America: schooling that’s focused on mastering a series of narrowly defined academic skills in rapid succession, that’s measured by nearly continuous standardized testing, that leaches from the school day into the evening with copious amounts of homework, and that’s defined by a desperate competition for awards, distinctions, and admission to selective colleges, the point being not merely to do well but to triumph over everyone else. Indeed, research has long shown that competitive individuals—or ­people who have been instructed to compete—tend to be less empathic, less generous, and less trusting. That makes perfect sense when you think about it: If other people have been defined as obstacles to your own success, why would you be inclined to help them or see things from their point of view?

If we’re looking to identify likely sources of narcissism or egocentricity, we might do well to consider unresponsive parenting or achievement pressures. Here, too, there’s probably no simple, satisfying cause-and-effect relationship. The one thing that is clear is that no persuasive reason exists to hold permissiveness responsible.

From the book The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Childhood and Parenting. Copywright(c) 2014 by Alfie Kohn. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books. All rights reserved.


Alfie Kohn

Comments [32]

I appreciate that Alfie Kohn is trying to defend involved and nurturing parents. They get a bad wrap. Over parenting, as it has been referred to, gets a bad wrap, as does helicopter parenting. It's worth distinguishing between helicopter parents, who however around their children's lives, and lawnmower parents, who remove any obstacles from their children's lives.

Unfortunately Alfie Kohn does more than his share of over generalizing, constructing straw man arguments and conflating philosophies. The unfortunate result is that instead of furthering the conversation, parents will tune him out.

Apr. 06 2014 09:15 AM
Aviva from Mt Vernon

I love this show! All the different messages out there, about parenting, had me questioning my own original instincts. Alfie Kohn has confirmed what felt natural for me from the beginning. Thank you!

Apr. 04 2014 05:58 PM
Judith Pack from Red Bank, NJ

Alfie Kohn is talking about an insidious trend that comes from the conservative right and crops up in different forms from decade to decade (remember "back to basics?"). Children must have order, discipline, "grit," and be manipulated. It's all about blaming those who do not "succeed"--if you don't, then it's your own fault. Of course, we know this is not true. We also know that all through history adults have complained about "kids today." These ideas have become so prevalent that people do not seem to see the absurdity in the way we treat children, especially in schools,--no recess, less play, more academics and testing,zero tolerance policies, handcuffing 6-yr.-olds...I could go on and on. And as Mr. Kohn says, when affluent parents do this, it's not about overindulgence, it's about manipulation.

Apr. 04 2014 04:13 PM
Levi Wallach from Reston, VA

I've heard Alfie speak in person and on video, now on radio as well. :) I'm a big fan of his mainly because he is very research-centric. Just as with other discussions online about parenting (and, heck, most topics!), people come out with opinions based on their own personal experience, anecdotes, or simply having read advice or being told something by a so-called "expert." Alfie breaks down this BS and goes right to studies which back up his arguments. Don't like what the science says, do your own studies, but parenting is not a study, it's a study of one family and that's worthless.

We don't like dealing with science around parenting because it touches something that we think we should have natural intuition for. This may be true in some basic ways (such as holding your baby), but when it comes to how to encourage your kid to do their homework, it's not quite there, probably because our ancestors never had to do this, so we never evolved to favor those who could encourage their children to sit through 8 hours of school.

I would mention my daughter in all this except to me individual anecdotes aren't worth much of anything when discussing broad parenting trends and styles. We need to stop following what makes us feel good or bad about parenting and look at the actual data. If you can look rationally and objectively at that, then we should all be able to agree. Unfortunately lots of people want to believe what they believe and don't really care about the objective data...

Apr. 04 2014 02:46 PM
tom LI

Any who does the "helicoptering" truly serve? IMO, it serves the adult most of all. Its fulfilling a need of the parent more than anything else....

Apr. 04 2014 02:02 PM
tom LI

Yawn...the American obsession with children and parenting. Let's face the reality its all a crap shoot of genetics and enviornment. Bad parents make good kids, good parents make bad kids. Sometimes its a mixed bag...and sometimes the kids make or break the parents.

The biggest problem I see is when a couple is married for the wrong reasons (its the next step, I have to be married before I'm thirty, my parents/culture insists I marry soon, I was born to be a Mom/dad, etc) never had a serious childrearing discussion prior to marrying, and where one of the partners is too complacent and/or the whipping post for the other.

Anecdotally, I have met like 2 out of 10 only children who is not self centered and unawares of what that would even mean as an adult.

Apr. 04 2014 01:57 PM

So Gary - you don't have to be a helicopter parent or a hard a$$ to raise a productive hard working child. In fact, most of the research in my husband's area - psychology tend to reflect that is the parents on the fringes - too restristive or too negligent that have children that end up with more problems later in life.

I like Harlowe's monkey experiments because they clearly point to this. The baby monkeys who had the wire mesh monkey mother were the most screwed up. The baby monkeys with the soft terry cloth monkey mother were not as screwed up. When the baby monkey's had both the wire mesh monkey mother with a bottle and the soft terry cloth monkey mother - they spent 16 hours a day with the terry cloth monkey mother and only an hour running over to feed from the bottle and then running back. So - that debunks the notion of bonding through bottle feeding.

So, the always available monkey mother wasn't really that great even though she was better than the wire mesh monkey mother. And clearly holding was important - this is also backed up by studies that showed a 25% reduction in mortality rates among premies when they were actually held by nurses who violated doctors orders that they not be touched.

The better monkey mother was the swinging terry cloth mother - the interactive model. The baby monkeys had to interact with the swinging terry cloth monkey mother and that was more stimulating.

Finally, even screwed up monkeys were better off if they were put in with a group of well-raised peers.

The worst was the "pit of despair" when monkeys were put in a situation where they couldn't succeed no matter how hard they tried.

Rule 1: Your baby does need to be held.
Rule 2: Your baby does need interaction (but you don't have to be passively "always available")
Rule 3: Your growing child needs to interact with peers.
Rule 4: While it is important that your child have challenges, they should not be so insurmountable that they fall into the pit of despair.

Really not too hard to implement.

Apr. 04 2014 12:18 PM
Molly in Manhattan from Manhattan

As a mother of two...

1. What about taking the time to know and honor children as the individuals they are and helping them develop through their young lives accordingly rather than giving in to the cultural compulsion to categorize and "develop" all children the same way(s)?

2. I'm highly dubious of the types of research being conducted for making categorical conclusions about how children should be parented "successfully". Would love to hear more about the actual research from a legit researcher or two.

Apr. 04 2014 11:53 AM
The Truth from Becky

Discipline between the ages of 5-10 eliminates the need for helicopter parenting! Helicopter parenting is for stay home moms/dads with no life.

Bunch a bull just like all these helmets, knees pads et al to ride a bike! We did right there on NY concrete! Skinned our knees, elbows but we lived and went right back out the next day to ride! Not even going to talk about roller skating on the concrete, might give away my age!!!

Apr. 04 2014 11:47 AM
Taher from Croton on Hudson

Angela Duckworth’s notion of parenting and child development will make adults who are nasty, inflexible jerks.

Apr. 04 2014 11:46 AM

Modern western Democracies are no longer capable of producing the kind of (truly) self-sacrificing citizens that they require in order to survive.

Apr. 04 2014 11:45 AM

I don't know, i've seen a lot more young adults unable to cope nowadays. Either growing up late, or not finding way in this world. And I think it's teachings like this that help spur that on.

Apr. 04 2014 11:44 AM
Gary from Forest Hills, NY

Where are the studies that refute what A. Duckworth says. This guy offers
scientific basis for his critique. So far, what I infer from what he's saying is that he disagrees with what Duckworth is reporting because doesn't it line up with his beliefs. And disagrees with the conclusions of the studies she cites so he says they're annectdotal.

WTF is wrong with hard work? Give me an effen break! I have an 8 month old and a 2.5 year old,guess which approach I plan to take.

Apr. 04 2014 11:43 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

In listening to your guest, as well as Angela Duckworth, whose taped segments you have been playing, I am beginning to think that they each have opinions based on studies, but neither really takes into account that children are individuals. What works with one may not work with another; and this is also true among siblings. There are many approaches to teach children the lessons they need to learn, but one has to know one's child before settling on any effect approach.

Mr. Kohn seems to be opposing Ms. Duckworth on principle rather than looking at the situation globally. What we should be doing is asking ourselves what lessons we would like our children to learn, evaluating each child, and teaching each individual child in the way s/he will learn best.

Apr. 04 2014 11:43 AM

How much of this is NYC-centric. I feel like friends with kids in other cities and areas don't have these kinds of issues. It's this weird hyper-competitive "keeping up with the Joneses" that seems to fuel this overbearing parenting style. As well, it seems like we're paranoid. And yeah, I agree seems mostly like a FWP of privilege.

Apr. 04 2014 11:41 AM
Joanne from NJ from NJ

I see that parents are controlling due to fear.. the fear that their kids will not measure up thus be a reflection on them.

Apr. 04 2014 11:41 AM
Amy from Manhattan

I'm glad to hear that Mr. Kohn's actual views on this are not as dichotomous as the excerpt in the tweet from the show made it sound. Yes, there is something--a whole spectrum--btwn. "helicopter parenting" & "permissive parenting."

Apr. 04 2014 11:41 AM

All the "helicopter parents" I know are extremely fearful that something or someone horrible will interact and harm their child.

Apr. 04 2014 11:41 AM
dboy from Nyc

Duckworth is disgusting.

I think this guys argument is fascinating and very we'll defended. I'm not sure I totally agree. Will have to read the book... Thanks for this!!!

Apr. 04 2014 11:40 AM
Chris from Manhattan

As a college counselor at a Manhattan independent school, I see some of these highly-praised, helicoptered kids when the rubber meets the road--in the college admissions process. They have a higher frustration rate, greater dispair, less realistic expectations, more unhappiness with the adults in the process, and in the end they report a less satisfactory process.

Apr. 04 2014 11:40 AM

Rich white people conversation alert!

Apr. 04 2014 11:39 AM
JR from NYC

I agree with the last caller. it is about boundaries.

Not not pick up a 5hr-old baby because it will be spoiled? what a bunch of poo.

There's no common sense these days.

Apr. 04 2014 11:39 AM
Jose from Bronx

This guest should have been on for April fools dsy!

Apr. 04 2014 11:38 AM

Unfortunately, Alfie Kahn I work with parents all the time and they are constantly barraged with the notion that you shouldn't pick up their babies because it will spoil them. There is even a guru pediatrician who suggests shutting the door and not opening it again for 12 hours at night and starting sleep training at 8 weeks - in defiance of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations. I can't tell you how many failure to thrive babies I have had to mop up after from his practice.

Apr. 04 2014 11:37 AM
Leo A from NJ

children are manipulative creatures by nature. People who feed into this manipulation are not guiding kids into being good functioning adults.

Apr. 04 2014 11:35 AM
clarissa from NYC

perhaps this self-described expert needs to open his eyes and living the real world. just looking old behavioral issues, ADD, etc. I think every argument he's making falls flat.

Apr. 04 2014 11:35 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Babies should be produced in factories and so would have no parents to please or displease.

Apr. 04 2014 11:32 AM
Randy L from brooklyn, ny

Fantastic guest! And I second an earlier comment here, parenting style matters very little, mostly, later on as your child grows. TED speakers are way over-hyped btw.

Apr. 04 2014 11:31 AM
John A

At any rate, effort is needed to break the circle of narcissism, parent to child, that is so common today, with self-help books especially. The word I start with is this: humility.

Apr. 04 2014 11:29 AM
Lembourne from NYC

I find consistently that the people who are claiming that 'all' children are 'spoiled' and who advocating for 'tough' parenting -- and hail the benefits of 'being realistic' and of 'failure' -- are primarily people without children of their own -- or who are now grandparents.

I was a perfect parent too -- before I had a child -- and I imagine I'll be perfect again if I ever have grandchildren.

Apr. 04 2014 10:59 AM

By the time a child has reached college age, it's highly questionable that early parenting styles (spanking or "let's talk this out") have as much effect on the child as what's going on around the child from society in general.

Who are we talking about here? Preschool children, influenced mainly by their parents or young adults, influenced by everyone?

I've experienced that children who are spanked are much more likely to hit other children.

Apr. 04 2014 10:36 AM
Lisa from Forest Hills, NY

I remember a Radiolab episode about how empathy does not really develop until age 8 or 9. I notice this in my daughter. She seems more concerned at her present age 8 about what others will think of her actions and she considers how others feel about what she says and does much more. She also has begun rationalizing her decisions. I am a half helicopter parent, half leave things to Forest Gump. In areas where other adults are controlling situations with my daughter I tend to be more helicopter. In areas where my daughter is trying for control I let it go where it takes us. She usually surprises me in her ultimate choices over time - short term and long term. Being aware that children mirror what they see it a key component and very undervalued.

Apr. 04 2014 08:55 AM

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