Helicopter Parents

Megan McArdle has a post up today talking about the rise of helicopter parents. Speaking as a very relaxed parent myself, this is a real phenomenon. My wife and I regularly get crazy glares, disapproving looks, and even snide comments from other parents. To be fair, she gets a lot more of it than I do. The Mommy Wars are a real thing, too. But when I regularly watch parents tell their five and six year old children that they aren’t allowed to do things that my two year old does, because safety, there’s clearly an issue.

But why?

Vague noises are made about how the world is more dangerous for kids than it used to be (it isn’t), how parents are more anxious than they used to be (really? More anxious than they were during the pioneer days or the Great Depression?), or how liability makes institutions more attuned to parental worries than they once were (OK, but the parents of 1970 didn’t ask institutions to keep their kids from climbing trees). I grew up in a New York City where kids had a lot more freedom — and a lot more crime to contend with, a lot more pollution, and a lot less safety gear. What changed?

The most plausible explanation I’ve heard is that we got richer, and richer people can expend more effort protecting their kids.

After settling in to explain, fairly enough, that we’re not that much richer than our parents, and surely this isn’t all of the explanation, she continues to assign much of the blame to our increasingly credentialized society and the importance of everything being perfect in a child’s life in order for them to have a good chance at a happy future.

With all due respect to Ms. McArdle, whom I read regularly and find to be regularly a great author, this is bunk. I can tell you in one word the primary driver in the rise of helicopter parents:

Numbers.

I am a father of three, with number four due early next year. Now, as it happens, my wife and I have inclined toward free range parenting from the beginning. However, I can tell you from direct experience – in a way that few Americans can these days – that helicopter parenting becomes exponentially harder with each additional child. And once you pass a certain point – probably at the birth of the fourth child, although I’m not there yet (I’ll get back to you) it becomes patently impossible.

Modern American parents are more hovery than their own parents because they can be. The smaller number of children that the average family has makes this possible. When there are only two kids (or, increasingly these days, only one kid) to ferry around, watch over, and care for, you can spend all of your time fretting over every little detail. And for women caught up in the mommy wars, there’s every incentive to do so – to signal how great of a parent you are.

Once the kids outnumber the adults, hovering over them in this way becomes very difficult – no matter how inclined toward it you may be. The kids will pull you in every possible direction, sapping your energy and attention. When the ratio hits 2 to 1, only the most die hard of helicopter parents can manage it anymore.

Today, Americans have fewer children. I believe this is detrimental for many reasons. The rise of helicopter parents is only one of them – but it’s a big one.

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