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Why Did Helicopter Parenting Come About?

Ryan Thomas is a university student with an extensive interest in history.

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The Origins of This Phenomenon

Any culture is inevitably fraught with contradictions on the subject of child-rearing and bearing, as inexorably any meaningful element of human activity will be. Perhaps, however, these stand out particularly prominently in the contemporary United States, where children are squeezed between two competing fires, between the devil and the deep blue sea—a belief that they spend too much time inside, too much time playing video games, not enough time outside playing and enjoying the simple past times of yore—but also an intense fear of strangers and tight control over children's activities which structures their lives.

The most common term for this style of parenting is "helicopter parenting," the comparison of a parent following around children in a helicopter circling overhead, and this has only become more prevalent as technological innovation has permitted electronic devices that provide for nigh constant surveillance over kids. The result has been an enclosure of children, who no longer roam around on their own, but rather are closely controlled and kept on a leash. Reading internet threads or discussions with my own parents is fascinating to see how much of a shift the rise of helicopter parenting, or at least close control and confinement of children, has markedly altered childhood.

The term helicopter parent carries a pejorative tone to it, with the manifold eccentricities of generation X and the baby boomers - their penchant for participation trophies which they gave to their children, the widespread birth of play dates, their obsessive fear of serial killers and stranger danger. Some of this bleeds over to today and continues to exist: even if parents as a whole might not be as extreme as the stereotypical helicopter parent, parents as a whole became far more intense in their monitoring and continued over-engagement with their children. It isn't a purely American phenomenon of course, as can be seen by the rise of “little emperors” in China, where children receive everything they want from their parents or grandparents, and nor is the fear which animates its constant protection of children from strangers or danger. In Eastern Europe, stranger danger fears appeared in a completely different economic and political system, with the "black volgas," rumored to be drawn by a whole host of different forces—Russian mafia, nuns, priests, secret police, Satanists, etc.—who were out to kidnap children. And of course, there are plenty of mythological creatures which would steal bad or mischievous children. Gryla, an Icelandic monster who would eat disobedient children, Lamia, her Greek equivalent, Baba Yaga among the Slavs, and a thousand and one other creatures to scare children straight. However, most of these are mentioned for children who misbehave or act badly, not for unattended ones.

The 1970s and 1980s by contrast saw a major increase in cases focusing on serial killers and child predators, on the idea that dangerous predators lurked behind every corner, and thus children needed constant supervision and protection. Logically, this proposition doesn't make sense: most rapists, child predators, etc. tend to prey upon those who they already know and are acquainted with. A teacher, a priest, a coach: these figures are far more likely to harm a child than a random stranger. Not that the former are in any way as a whole predisposed to this, nor the latter non-existent, but far more cases have emerged from the former than the latter.

Terror over missing children is best shown by things like milk cartons, omnipresent symbols of fear about abduction or kidnapping.

Terror over missing children is best shown by things like milk cartons, omnipresent symbols of fear about abduction or kidnapping.

Why did public fears concentrate upon the random strange predator rather than the more proportionally dangerous close individuals in positions of authority? Perhaps it is a scapegoating: it was far easier to ascribe something to them than to someone known and trusted. Perhaps it was shame; shame that someone valued and esteemed could be allowed to do such atrocious things. Perhaps it was fear of the unknown since regardless of the facts at hand, it is hard to deny that a random, anonymous, untraceable, stranger is a terrifying potential foe. For whatever reason, this became the face of danger to children.

But it is easy to see why the fear came about: the post-war era in the United States saw a thoroughly massive displacement of people, both from the residual population in the countryside but even more significantly from the cities to the suburbs. This was one of the most comprehensive population shifts in a developed country, and one which resulted in population structures since the communities which were formed were markedly more atomized and individualistic. You can still see some remnants of urban society from beforehand, in ethnic enclaves in the United States, which are notably more tight-knit and communal, and in rural regions, in small towns, with the "small town feeling," where there is a greater feeling of trust not necessarily of strangers, but there are fewer strangers to fear, and in a small town everyone knows each other. By contrast, the American suburb is composed of autonomous and independent families, with limited trust towards each other, lacking the small-town feeling of solidarity and communal trust. It isn't surprising that the stranger danger phenomenon and the helicopter parenting mentality emerged in the middle and upper classes in the US, who were first exposed to these phenomena.

This continues today. There is far greater mobility and population shifts across the country than before. It is expected nowadays that the search for employment will lead upwardly mobile professionals and many common middle-class people all across the entire country, in search of more economically dynamic regions. There is a lack of stable, long-term, communities for life where one might expect to know one's neighbors for not just years but even for multiple generations. This tremendous change is accompanied by a natural decline in trust, since not only are one's neighbors autonomous individuals in a low-density suburb, but often one knows them very little or only for a relatively short period of time: one lives in a community of strangers.

There is also the landscape and built environment side of things. American urban and suburban architecture has become increasingly difficult for children to actually play and explore. There is strict zoning into residential, urban, and commercial zones, and suburbs are built around cars and sprawl to great distances. For kids to go play and explore they have to travel great distances—even on bicycles. Some suburban landscapes, such as in the hot areas of the sunbelt—think of the Southwest—are essentially inaccessible during the day, since they require air conditioning to be livable during the day. Even if parents were willing to let children go out and play, independently, what would children really go do?

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To replace this comes the famous array of activities of the helicopter parent: play dates, arranged play events, and parentally supervised social activities. Children are under the constant supervision of an adult at home, on the playground, and at school, and are directed extensively in how they are supposed to live their lives. There has been plenty said about helicopter parenting in the way of criticism, especially due to the perception that they rob their children of individual autonomy and initiative. Instead of engaging with other children and making their own decisions, these decisions are made for them Children lose the spark of childhood in their ability to go and do what they want, and to learn how to interact naturally with other children. The child is infantilized and prevented from passing through the stages of maturity and autonomy which lead ultimately to adulthood.

Capitalism and Products

It also seems likely that the death of the independent, free-ranging, self-sustaining childhood has a potent economic factor. Children have always it must be assumed, loved gifts and presents, toys and amusements: there is a reason why puppet shows have been so beloved, why various holidays were built up around gift giving, why we can find what we assume to be toys in the ruins of many civilizations, such as wheeled toys in Mesoamerica, lacking the large domestic animals required for useful draft beasts that make the wheel useful, but still a fun bauble for children.

But at the same time, the rate of consumption and consumer spending patterns have been dramatically enhanced, accelerated, and dictated by children to a far greater extent than before Advertisers are perfectly aware of this: they market their wares explicitly to children, attempt to make the children desire them so that they children will, in turn, convince parents. Toys, gizmos, video games, entertainment, all of these are marketed to children en masse, (fittingly the derogatory term for adults who continue to be obsessed with them is "manchildren") and holidays like Halloween, Easter, and Christmas have been transformed almost entirely into events for giving candy and presents respectively to kids.

It makes sense that companies, marketers, and advertisers, would delight in the creation of a world where activities that require purchases—video games, an array of media toys tracking the n creations of different franchises, and gadgets—are elevated over cheaper childhood interests. These more expensive pastimes can, of course, involve other children, but they are generally more materialistic, and often less connected, more monitored, or enclosed. Video games often go through fast cycles of replenishment for children, who can rack up huge libraries of games. are an indoor activity, one which takes place in a secure, safe, environment (discounting whatever potential corruption might filter in from online sources). It is far more profitable to consumer society to encourage the purchase and consumption of objects like video games through such fast phases of obsolescence, than for kids to play in the woods or run around essentially for free.

What seems striking too is that online or consumer activities have a natural proclivity to funnel interests into small and narrow channels which are easily marketable. If you are on the internet, you will probably find that you tend to fall into a small number of sites that you use constantly, and the most common online outlet that can be discussed in public (other that is, than the watching of adult entertainment, which from my recollections takes up 40% of web capacity), is movies and shows: societal expectations and offerings are designed to funnel children into categorizable consumer groups, for things like sports, various hobbies that take money, games, etc. rather than requiring their active creation of their own entertainment and fun. Passive consumption is profitable and self-replicating since one grows to rely upon it for one's self-satisfaction.

This doesn't explain everything of course: there's no inherent reason why helicopter parents couldn't say, monitor their kids playing in the woods or troop around town with them. I suspect rather that the array of material expenditures have represented instead a reserve, a different outlet—something to divert children. Children stuck at home all day with nothing to do is a recipe for disaster, but video games will fill their attention, obviating the need for both constant parental forays into the world, such a drain on a parent's energy, or for the risk of letting the child wander out himself into the world. Video games have received much blame for a whole range of problems among kids—but they seem much more likely to be a coping mechanism that enabled the change in childhood to take place, rather than the driver itself. Capitalist and moneyed relationships seem similarly structured: they aren't as noted as the direct force behind the rise of a consumer childhood, although indirectly they propelled the mechanisms which produced it. But once in movement they have benefitted tremendously from these developments and taken advantage.

Investment

Even more expensive than this is the massive investment which is made in children. In a pre-industrial, largely agricultural civilization, children were cheap—they provided free labor on farms and needed only food, lodging, and clothing. Their time of care was short too – both grimly in that most died before they became adults, so their lives were cheap by today's standards, and that they graduated to full economic productivity earlier, or at least were removed from being a burden from their parents, such as being sent off as journeymen or apprentices if they were boys, often at a young age. There is no doubt that parents still loved their children, and early studies on the history of childhood exaggerated the lack of emotional connection between the two when they attempted to take into account what the stunningly high mortality rates did to impact the ties of family love. But inherently children were not as great of a resource investment as today.

Children today are an incredibly expensive prospect in the developed world. Education is a great expense, in that university is increasingly a requirement and this often is at great cost, healthcare doesn't come cheaply, housing has become a heavy burden, and all this is for entities who give no useful material return on investment—the most that one can potentially expect (and even this not necessarily), is that kids might take care of you in your old age. And there are far fewer of them: once a family which might see half or more of its children die would require the better part of 10 just to ensure population stability (since many individuals never married), while nowadays no developed country other than Israel has a fertility rate above 2. Children are precious in material terms, with massive costs sunk in them.

These are an important part of the phenomenon of the helicopter parent. Parents who put much work into their children are on the upper end of the economic ladder and are more likely to be helicopter parents. They have tutors, music classes, various after-school activities, martial arts, artwork, and a host of other activities which are designed to raise children and most importantly give them an advantage in future educational and ultimately employment opportunities. Of course, this varies a great amount from group to group: Asian parents are famous—perhaps infamous—about the demands that they make upon their children, the sheer amount of requirements that they have for academic attainment, but this makes up a good chunk of the time required by well-off children. Massive hopes and expectations are placed upon kids.

Reform or Change

There's no doubt that mentalities in childhood have much changed in the past several decades. Is this a good thing, and if it isn't, is it reversible?

Good, almost certainly not: helicopter parents seem to have genuinely decreased the quality of their children's lives, as attested by children who are adults who talk about their resentment of this style of parenting, and the mourning for the loss of a more carefree life. It seems to be negative in its effects on children in their lack of social relationships and the alienation that many of them experience and the difficulties of integrating themselves into the adult world.

But social trust which has been lost is not easily regained. helicopter parenting and the defensive tether placed upon children might not be rationally justified, but it will be hard to convince parents to let their children roam free when they lack any trust or confidence in their neighbors to look after and watch out for their children. It is inevitable that there will be missing children and child predators, and any attempt to push for a more carefree and less oversight-intensive parenting style will inevitably face the backlash that such incidents, however rare, inevitably will happen. At this point, the vicious cycle of fear will commence once more. Outside the dying small towns and agricultural communities, and certain ethnic enclaves in the city, childhood as an institution of freedom without constant adult involvement is a bygone institution.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.