The Childists vs. the Helicopter Parents

By: hawkgrrrl
May 1, 2012

Are Americans childist, disregarding the needs of children in favor of parents’ needs, or helicopter parents, hovering over our children to make sure they get everything to which we deem they are “entitled” – from turns at bat to Easter eggs to good grades in school?  Either way, are Americans becoming the worst parents in the world, behind the ambitious and exacting Chinese, the co-parenting Swedes, the open-minded Dutch, and the common-sensical French? Or is all the hubris behind these bestselling parenting advice books just wishful self-aggrandizement?

How do we strike the right balance between giving kids boundaries and building decision making skills and accountability, between advocating for our children’s rights and teaching them empathy for the rights and feelings of others, between accepting and loving them as they are and helping them to live up to their full potential so they have opportunities even greater than they can imagine?  And at heart, how do parents avoid living vicariously through their children and avoid acting out of self-interest?

Those who consider Americans “childists” point out what they consider discrimination against children in the US – that we don’t listen to children or treat them like the future adults they are rapidly becoming, and that many would prefer for other people’s children to be kept away from adults (movies, restaurants, public transportation, etc.) rather than integrated into society.  My own observation is that in my lifetime, the US has become much more child-centric with the emergence of helicopter parents, poised to protect their children’s rights to sit at the grown up’s table, to throw tantrums in public places without any restrictions, and to put their own whims ahead of the feelings of others.  Some of the rising generation would say that makes me a childist, someone who hates children, but as a mother of three, I think it just means that I’m from an older generation of parents – one that feels children benefit from restrictions, that they should consider the feelings of others, that some emotions are best expressed in private, and that children will develop confidence as they fight their own battles.


A recent article described one woman’s parenting challenge.  The Vogue diet mom, as she has come to be called (with a book deal in the works of course), was alarmed to find out that her 7-year old daughter was 99th percentile for weight, and immediately put her on a diet and enrolled her in karate classes.  The daughter initially resisted these restrictions, even with tears, yet the mother persisted, and the daughter is now at a healthy weight.  Critics of the mother immediately emerged with shrill attacks:  she’s set her daughter up for years of therapy and eating disorders, she’s a terrible mother who doesn’t love her daughter for who she is, she’s starving her daughter and writing a book about it, she’s teaching her daughter a shallow definition of beauty, and so forth.

The article pointed out that the majority of upper  middle class American mothers share this view of the necessity of being physically fit to have opportunities in life, so the fact that one woman admitted it and what she did about it was helpful in that it got a dialogue going.  I realize from reading this that I feel the same way as this mother.  Since when did a 7 year old routinely eating 3 slices of pizza on “Pizza Fridays” at her elementary school not qualify as an eating disorder?  Why are we only excoriating the parents who want to help the child develop better eating habits?  Is it no longer socially acceptable for a parent to put restrictions on children without being viewed as abusive or creating self-esteem problems for children?  Where is the balance?

We often say that as adults, we can still hear our mother’s voice in our heads.  I’ve heard before that there are really just two inner voices:  the voice of the critical parent and the voice of the nurturing parent.  Parents, both individually and as a team, need to strike the right balance between these two styles. How well we balance them can create an inner voice for our children that is either more critical or more nurturing – or ideally, well-balanced.  The critical parent drives us to do better, to achieve new heights of potential – but it also is the parenting voice responsible for shaming and can lead to low self-esteem if left unchecked or if the child is already prone to depression or being self-critical.  The nurturing parent soothes us and comforts us, tells us we deserve a break or an extra cookie because we are special – but the nurturing parent can also encourage us to be selfish or to disregard the feelings of others, and it can lead us to be lazy or expecting unrealistic and undeserved special treatment.


Most parenting disputes, within marriage as well as in society at large, are the “nurturing” voices vs. the “critical” voices.  Yet parenting really requires both.  Each of us needs to find that balance within ourselves, if we are parents in partnership with our spouse, and balancing the natural tendencies of each child and the current situation.  Sometimes children need an extra cookie.  Sometimes they need to be encouraged to do just one more lap around the track or to study harder.

  • What’s your parenting style?  Are you more nurturing or more critical?  What were your parents like?  Is your style a reaction to theirs?
  • Do you and your spouse balance each other in terms of being critical or nurturing?
  • Do you adapt your style to the child’s individual temperament and circumstances?
  • Do you think parents in your culture have the right parenting approach?  Why or why not?

Discuss.

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8 Responses to The Childists vs. the Helicopter Parents

  1. Paul on May 1, 2012 at 8:53 AM

    I will likely answer this question differently for myself than my children would. I suppose I understand more of my theory and my children only see my practice. *sigh*

    A motto I have come to adopt later in my parenting is never to do for my children what they can do for themselves. By nature I want to control outcomes, and I own that flaw in myself and work actively to overcome it. Allowing my children to succeed and fail is helpful to both them and me.

    One thing I was shocked to learn when our second child arrived was how different he was from the first. I found this hugely unfair to me as a parent. My seven children regularly demonstrate that there is no single maxim, no single approach, no single “method” of parenting that applies to all of them equally.

    All that said, I am likely more critical than I need to be — better than I used to be, but still too critical in my view.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 1, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    I am a pretty much benign neglect parent myself.

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  3. Bonnie on May 1, 2012 at 5:22 PM

    Hm. Should I answer for my parenting now or a decade or two ago? Can we talk bipolar?

    I think that one can simultaneously be a childist and a helicopter parent. I cannot describe the evisceration helicopters give their children’s sense of power.

    I believe in having children at the big people table and telling them to chew with their mouths closed (actually, the joke is that I say talk with their mouths closed, to everyone’s glee at correcting me.)

    I like the idea that we have a nurturing voice and a critical voice. I had always thought of having our parents’ voices in our head and I’ve spent a long time altering those voices. Now I have the voice of an old friend in my mind and I like that best of all.

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  4. Jon on May 2, 2012 at 6:31 AM

    My wife and I home educate our children (4 and 2). Does that count as helicopter? No, I don’t think I helicopter parent, but our children our still young, I still need to read a bunch of parenting books to figure things out.

    Books on my list:
    Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children

    Giants and Dwarfs: Essays, 1960-1990

    The Closing of the American Mind

    Causal Learning: Psychology, Philosophy, and Computation

    How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

    Of course these are just a few on my reading list, we’ll see if I even get half of them read! Parenting is a lot of work!

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  5. Hawkgrrrl on May 2, 2012 at 6:36 AM

    Well, if parenting is any work at all, you’re more of a helicopter parent than my parents were. Different generations. I am sure they never read any books on parenting either or worried too much that they weren’t doing it right.

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  6. Jon on May 2, 2012 at 7:22 AM

    Yeah, previous generations used to beat their children (including spanking) and used to be very puritanical and demanding of their children. Things that have proven not be be good psychologically to their children. I guess that is why I would like to learn more in order to figure out what false traditions I might be carrying on from my parents. I don’t think it will make me a perfect parent, nor a good parent, but at least it will (hopefully) point me in the right direction.

    So I guess that is the main reason, to eschew false traditions.

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  7. aerin on May 2, 2012 at 1:25 PM

    > What’s your parenting style? Are you more nurturing or more critical?

    I’m nurturing, or I try to be.

    My parents were nurturing sometimes, but were also pretty hands off. They were not as critical of me as of my other siblings. Later in my early adulthood, they admitted that sometimes they expected the church to handle some topics/parenting/doctrines. To some extent, my parents did the best they could with what they had.

    >Do you adapt your style to the child’s individual temperament and circumstances?

    Yes. But I also try to be fair. Being the mom of twins, both children are very aware when one child has more advantages than the other.

    > Do you think parents in your culture have the right parenting approach? Why or why not?

    I would like to see more moderation in parenting among my peers. Despite the many calls for people to not be judgmental or critical of each others’ parenting, I believe it still happens. Whether or not the issue is breastfeeding, pre-school, tv watching or eating food with high fructose corn syrup. I’m not sure how to have those conversations or disagreements without one side feeling pressured or that their style of parenting is wrong.

    I do think it’s important that kids have boundaries. I also like the philosophy to not do for your kids what they can do for themselves.

    I am not interested in forcing my children to participate in extra-curricular activities – from piano-playing to soccer practice (i.e. Tiger Mom stuff). I’m all for encouraging education and activities – but see no reason to force a child to practice something daily.

    Yes, that means my child won’t be a tennis star like Andre Agassi, or a child musical prodigy. But I’m much more interested in them being well-adjusted and productive adults, rather than prodigies.

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  8. Michael on May 8, 2012 at 7:20 AM

    The old wisdom still applies: Spare the rod and spoil the child.

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