27 February 2012

The Pefect Storm: Helicopter Parents in an Age of Narcissism and a Culture of Consumerism

A very good friend asked me for my thoughts on this article from the Huffing-and-puffing-ton Post.  Here's what I could throw together on a first reading.  I'm sure I'll be able to add more later...and reserve the right to come back to this with more info.

The article is full of important truthful observations.  There really is such a thing as helicopter parents, and they really are doing a great deal of damage to their children.

There are all sorts of anecdotes that most any of us could add to the list in the article.  Unfortunately, some of the anecdotes will be personal, because we've perpetrated some of the excesses. Current parents (mostly born after 1964, the cutoff year between the Boomer and Buster generations) waited longer to marry and have smaller families than at any time in US history.  Since we don't have as many kids, we can focus more attention on the ones we have.  (I don't fit the mould...I have four kids, but the average for parents in my age group is just below two kids.)

The article puts much of the blame on instant gratification.  This is true to a degree, but it is not the whole truth. Greed, narcissism, and deep-seated desire for complete autonomy are also important factors.  You can trace these things back to the Garden of Eden.  It was the idea of autonomy (literally, 'law unto oneself') that got Eve and Adam in trouble.  Of course, one could argue that greed is a simple function of instant gratification, but I think there is a difference.  And narcissism is very different, involving self-worship over simple hedonism.

Did this all begin in the Fall of 1982, as the article claims?  Hardly.  There have been bad parents, both helicopter parents and neglectful parents, for a lot longer than that. The story is told that Douglas MacArthur's mom Pinky moved with him to West Point, and took an apartment near the campus so she could watch him with a telescope.  That was 1899. (1)  And D.H. Lawrence famously offered back in 1918: "How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning." (2)

There are broader implications to the problem than just those on which the article touches.  The author faults the, 'you're special' message we send to our kids, and rightly so.  But it misses the gospel implications of this message.  Our culture tells us that our problems are external to us and the solution is on the inside.  But the gospel teaches us the opposite:  our problems are internal and the solution is alien to us.  We have a tremendous problem of unregenerate church membership in our country, because we've told our kids so often that they haven't sinned, but simply made a mistake; they aren't bad people, just caught in bad circumstances.  But scripture clearly says the problem (sin) is in us, and the solution (Christ and His righteousness) are clearly outside us.  Even where the article gets much right, it misses this completely.  And we wonder why we have the aberrant phenomena of the so-called Emergent Church?

The article addresses the idea of external vs internal motivation- saying one of the problems that helicopter parents create is a lack of any internal motivation.  This is certainly a factor, but not really new.  I've been pointing this out in higher education for twenty years or more.  Kids used to rely on themselves and were self-learners.  They'd walk in to a college class, expecting the professor to be somewhat aloof, and understand it was up to them to read the textbook, attend the lectures, and spend the necessary time to digest and critically examine the information they'd gained and form new thoughts and ideas from it.  Now, they come to class, plop down in a chair, and challenge the professor to teach them, or else.  They don't lift a finger to help in many cases.  Reading the textbook?  How dare you ask them to do that!  (NB: This attitude is being changed somewhat by the rapid increase in online learning...students are finding that without the baby-sitter influence of a face-to-face contact with the professor, success in the course is nearly impossible without reading the textbook...and professors are in a better location to give the grade earned instead of the grade requested with pressure- the location being anywhere the student isn't.)  Now, this problem may be less visible in secondary schools, because there has always been more institutional control over children at this age.  But I don't doubt the problem exists behind the scenes even at these ages.

One of the other ideas where the author tends to partly miss is the idea that students must do something special in order to be special.  I partly agree.  From the context the author takes, it is indeed necessary to have a skill set, or know something, or be able to do something beyond the innate to be considered special.  Where the author leaves off and falls short, I think, is an analysis of the whole problem.  The bigger problem isn't that they aren't doing anything special, but as the article points out in a prior point, we aren't teaching them the importance (special-ness) of doing small things, and compounding that error by making the source of their special-ness things they do rather than their position as a creature that bears the image of God. 

How many marriages would be in less trouble, or would not have failed, if we taught our kids the importance of small things, like kindness, gentleness, patience, and self-control?   And how much do we contribute to the problem by telling them they are special based on ways that have no foundation in reality? In other words, the reason all people are special is because of their special status as God's creation and because of His blessing on them from the beginning.  We miss this in a secular culture (of course) and thus try to assign special-ness to other factors, such as what we can do. And even when we get the reason for being special right, we focus often on the creature rather than God; taking the humanistic rather than the theistic solution to the problem.  We need to teach our kids that they are special, but with that we also need to throw in the little part about them being sinners and deserving of eternal punishment.  That little inconvenient factoid tends to throw a wet blanket over narcissistic tendencies, at least when it is believed by the recipient of the information.  Kids are special, but they all have the same problem:  they are sinners at the root.

              (I wonder where he learned that behavior?)

Happiness as a central goal, as the author suggests, is a huge problem.  Maybe the biggest of all.  I've faced this numerous times.  The defining event for me was a meeting I once had with a woman in my church to whom I had been assigned as a family deacon.  She had chosen to abandon her husband and one-year-old daughter for more worldly pursuits.  When confronted with the sin she was choosing to embrace, her response was, "God wants me to be happy." My deacon colleague who was with me quickly and correctly pointed out to her that God wanted her to obey, and that her happiness (really joy) would come from obedience, not fleshly pursuits.  She didn't repent.  Happiness was more important than obedience. 

One of the results of this kind of thinking is the Hedonist paradox.  We usually have to wait to see the results of this paradox later in life.  The author cites young adults in counseling over their 'issues'...often boiling down to the simple fact that they haven't had the world handed to them on a platter.  The Hedonist paradox works like this- If you live for pleasure you will either find it or you won't.  If you don't find it, you will become frustrated.  If you do find it, you will become bored.  And living like this will certainly cause many to end up in the office of a professional counselor.

Should we let our kids fail? Absolutely.  Teaching them to deal with failure is MUCH more important than protecting them from the bad feelings which come with failure.  We need to fail, and more importantly, we NEED to feel bad about it when we do.  This is one reason why sin is such a non-issue in our culture today...because we've made feeling bad about being bad a bigger sin than the sin itself.  We have a misguided and factually faulty idea of the risks.  Some kids now never learn to ride a bike, because their parents are too worried about them falling off. Time says it this way- "Death by injury has dropped more than 50% since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and strollers suddenly needed the warning label 'Remove Child Before Folding.' " (3)  Falling off a bike hurts, but we learn a lesson from it that can't be taught any other way.

Even more misguided is our evaluation of the risks of NOT letting them fail. That ends up being an epic fail on our part as parents.  This is not easy.  It's just one more example of learning from our mistakes, but this time, it's our kids who suffer from our bad decisions, not us.

(1) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1940697,00.html

(2) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1940697,00.html#ixzz1nbWFpn88

(3)  http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1940697,00.html#ixzz1nbU5T34r


  1. Okay, I am making myself late now so I can comment as long as I'd like, but Doc, this is an excellent review and I couldn't agree more. Thank you for the encouragement and taking the time to point out these distinctions. I often wonder if helicopter parents are not more self-absorbed than they appear. Even tough they smother their children with attention, maybe they are trying too hard to be the perfect parent. That can be a very selfish ambition.

    Loved your points about failure, the gospel (solution), and inward vs. outward motivation.

    1. Thanks, Aimee. I hope you weren't really late.

      Interesting point about selfish ambition...which is one of the causes for the kids being in some of these places in the first place (vicarious parenting). Just try coaching a youth sport if you don't know what I'm talking about.


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