In Defense of Helicopter Parenting

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.