How Low Should I Fly My Helicopter


Modern parenting gets more complicated every day. Keeping tabs on your child physically is no longer enough; you also need to know where they are online, with whom, and what they’re doing there. With so many moving targets, the big question is: how far should you intrude into your child’s life? Shouldn’t they have room to make their own mistakes — and, hopefully, learn from them?

Be There When They Need You
It is important to watch your kids closely enough to make sure you are there when they need you. “We go by the Montessori mindset of freedom within boundaries,” says a Hill mother of kids ranging from toddler to teenager. “At any given point one of our kids might need more attention, but in general we try to be as hands off as possible.”

School teachers and administrators tend to agree with this, but caution that sometimes you need to check in more frequently. As a teacher at an area private high school puts it, “The parents we really need to see at parent-teacher conferences are those whose kids aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but often they are the ones who don’t show up.” Do not be afraid to check in with your kid’s school, and go to those meetings — they’re an excellent opportunity to see how things are going and open lines of communication between school and home. It is also good for students to see that their parents are connected to that part of their lives.

Adolescents do not always want to admit that they want you there, but they secretly like it. In the words of a 7th grade girl, “I don’t like it when my Mom watches my every move, of course, but it’s nice to have her there just in case something happens. I’ll call her if I need her.”

Be that set of ears to listen to the social drama at school or how unfair that teacher is being, without judgment. Set up that relationship so that when something happens, you’re ready to jump in to help.

Don’t Let Your Rotors Make Too Much Noise
There are certainly times in an adolescent’s life that call for more parental involvement. Choosing and applying to high schools and colleges can be a time when parents need to be involved, but do they have to be as involved as they often are? As an 8th grader applying to private high schools puts it, “My parents decided to be as uninvolved as possible and let me take the lead [in this process]. Because of this I’m actually passionate about the schools I’m applying to and feel prepared for high school.” However, the parents certainly have to be there to write the Parent Statements, attend interviews, and pay the application fees.

These parents are certainly on to something. In an article in Psychology Today (January 2017), Dr. Joel L. Young cautions parents that helicopter parenting might actually increase your child’s anxiety. He encourages parents to step back and let their kids fail, not to jump in and try to save them from the occasional negative consequences of their actions. He points to a recent study at the National University of Singapore that appears to show that children whose parents are too involved in their actions are more prone to anxiety and the resultant issues.

Bottom line — be there to help make final decisions, and pay the bill, but let your kids manage the project. They will learn a lot more from the process and you will have the bonus of not having to do all the work!

Know When to Land — and When To Take Off Again
But what should you do when your kids truly need you? With an estimated 12% of babies born prematurely and 13% receiving some level of special education support in school, the United States has a fair share of kids who can be expected to need extra attention from their parents and others.

A Washington, DC parent of twins born prematurely talks about her journey through the early years. “In their first few years we were in and out of therapists’ offices and always watching out for things. It’s been hard to step back, but as they’ve gotten older we have had to force ourselves to let them make their own mistakes, even if it means something bad happening.” When one of her twins and his older brother were the victims of a mugging on a neighborhood playground, her first impulse was to restrict their movements, but she quickly realized that that wouldn’t help them. “I was really impressed that my older son knew to run to a local store and ask for help which resulted in the police quickly being called.”

When my own child recently had a bout of extreme anxiety that interfered with her school and social life, I was forced to look at the position of my helicopter. Luckily it was in flight mode and was easily able to swoop in. We got her the help she needed from outside of school, worked with the school to get her on the right track there and, most importantly, allowed her to advocate for what she needed to turn things around.

Our kids need to learn these skills so that when challenges come along later, especially in college and beyond, they know how to cope, how to self-advocate, and how to move past bad experiences. “You always have to have the endgame in mind,” says Ryan Benjamin, Chief Academic Officer at Washington Global Public Charter School in Southwest, DC. “If you’re helicoptering in middle school, how are you going to do it in high school and if you’re helicoptering in high school, how are you going to do it in college? At some point you have to set them up for the future and that time has to be now.

So When Should I Park My Helicopter?
Parenting expert Meghan Leahy feels that it’s not about helicopter parenting versus free range parenting at all, but rather about truly knowing your child. “I think that parents prize independence too much,” she says. “They don’t understand how much our children need us.” She cautions that they don’t need their parents on top of them, but alongside them. “Like a sun, they should always circle us. The orbit just lengthens. But every child is different.”

Of course, kids cannot raise themselves. Kids need parents to give them guidelines and have the safety net ready. Let them know that you are there for them and, perhaps most importantly, that you aren’t perfect either. As a teacher and as a parent, I find it helpful to model problem-solving for adolescents. If I have a problem at work or with a friend, I talk it through with them and together we come up with some solutions that might work for me. I share with them if I’ve made a mistake and talk to them about how to fix it. If kids see that you are a fallible individual who is also trying to figure out how to deal with life, they can feel more comfortable coming to you with their own issues. The key is always to respect your child’s emerging autonomy while still steering them out of harm’s way. Not an easy task, but worth the effort.


E.V. Downey is an educational consultant with Downey School Consulting, working with families to find the right school for each child. She is also a behavioral therapist for kids with developmental delays, a flute teacher at Music on the Hill, and runs a summer/winter camp called Busy Bees. A 30-year resident of Capitol Hill, she resides by Congressional Cemetery with her husband, son, daughter, dog, and cat.