The Science of Helicopter Parenting

Hover mothers, helicopter parents. Call them whatever you want: we’ve all seen examples of parents who closely monitor their children’s lives – sometimes even as their children stop being children and head off to college.

Parenting is always a topic that’s promising ground for psychologists. “So tell me about your parents.”

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that psychology researchers have taken an interest in helicopter parenting too. Of course, when it comes to scientifically investigating a somewhat vague topic like “helicopter parenting,” the first question on the agenda is: what exactly is helicopter parenting?

Researchers have suggested three types of behavior that define helicopter parenting. Helicopter parents tend to seek detailed information about their children’s lives, to limit their children’s autonomy, and to directly intervene in their children’s lives. A classic example of the latter would be the parent who contacts their child’s college professor to complain about their child’s grade.

The study that revealed these facets of helicopter parenting also looked into whether these parenting behaviors are associated with different life outcomes in young adults. And as it turns out, the news for helicopter parents isn’t good: children of helicopter parents tend to have worse emotional functioning, poorer decision making skills, and lower academic performance.

That said, there were some good elements to helicopter parenting. In particular, when parents practiced the information seeking aspect of helicopter parenting without intervening in their children’s lives or restricting their children’s autonomy, their children did better in terms of decision making and academic performance. This suggests that it’s not inherently bad for parents to be highly engaged in their children’s lives as long as being engaged doesn’t turn into trying to control their children’s lives.

OK, now for some more bad news about helicopter parenting, this time from a recent study titled Can Hovering Hinder Helping? The title alludes to the key question explored in the study: whether parents who hover produce children who are less likely to help others.

The answer to this question may be yes. It turned out that college students with helicopter parents were less prone to empathic and prosocial behaviors. This led the researchers to conclude that “helicopter parenting appears to be a distinct type of parental overcontrol that especially contributes to moral development.”

With effects like these, maybe it’s no surprise that helicopter parents have gotten a bad reputation. One paper on the topic put it bluntly, saying that “university personnel tend to view ‘helicopter’ parents as problematic.”

However, the authors of the paper then went on to suggest that helicopter parents could be used as a force of good. In particular, the researchers designed an intervention that used helicopter parents to discourage students from risky alcohol use. Describing the intervention, the researchers pointed to the possibility that “these highly engaged parents can instead be utilized productively.”

The bulk of the research on helicopter parenting, though, seems to indicate that restricting children’s autonomy, especially as they enter adulthood, can do more harm than good. Parenting is a complex topic, and there’s much we don’t understand about the effects of different parenting styles, but what we do know increasingly suggests that hovering is a parenting technique with unintended consequences.

Image: Flickr/milo bostock