Helicopter Parents Cripple Their Children

I pulled the yellow Rubbermaid dish washing gloves off and turned them upside down. Dirty water drained out of them. I examined my hands. They were white, prune-like, bleeding, and stinging from the harsh laundry detergent I had to keep pouring into the cleaning water.

“Are you gonna git to work or stand around feeling sorry for yourself?” said Mr. Dixon in his Texas drawl.

I turned and saw the assistant manager staring at me. He had hired me after I had bothered him every day for three straight weeks about a job. He was now questioning his decision as well as my commitment to work. I felt my cheeks getting hotter than they already were from the kitchen and the pot washing pit. I thought seriously about quitting right then. How dare he ignore my injured hands? Where was the sympathy I was used to getting at home? Then I thought about why I needed the job. No job = no gas money. No car = no girls. So I didn’t answer him. I just threw the gloves aside, grabbed a white nylon brush and started scrubbing another pan.

It was a Sisyphean task. Pots and pans were stacked from the floor to the ceiling and the cooks were pulling pans off of the line faster than I could clean them.

I had started my shift at 5:30 by rolling silverware into cloth napkins. Napkins and taking clean trays out to the cafeteria line were my big responsibilities for the first two weeks of my employment. But that night was different. The pot washer had quit mid-morning and the pots and pans had been piling up ever since. At six-thirty, I got thrown into the pot washing pool. At nine o’clock, Charlie, one of the dish machine crew, came over to help me. With him washing and me rinsing and stacking, we finished at 11:30. Three and a half hours after closing. The next day I was assigned as the permanent evening pot washer. Using the tricks Charlie taught me, I became one of the best pot washers the cafeteria had ever had. Good enough to earn a promotion to vegetable cook at the new cafeteria the company opened across town.

I worked hard at that job and earned several promotions and was even offered a management internship. I turned it down to go to college, but not before thanking Mr. Dixon for pushing me to accept what had appeared to be an impossible task and conquering it. Overcoming that mountain of pots and pans gave me the confidence and determination I needed to get through many difficult situations I have encountered in life. And each mountain I conquered gave me the confidence to take on new challenges. Unfortunately, I have seen too many parents in the last thirty years who spend all of the energy trying to protect and shield their children from any and all difficulties or failures in life.

The term “helicopter parents” has been coined to describe these people. I prefer the term “polio parents” because they cripple their children rather than rescuing them. By interfering, they rob children of the learning opportunities they need to develop coping skills to handle life’s difficulties. They also destroy their offspring’s confidence in their ability to problem solve. What could be more crippling to an individual than to be raised with the belief that they are incapable of dealing with life without mommy and daddy’s help?

Polio parents remind me of the Native American story about a tribal chief whose bare feet hurt. To alleviate the problem, he ordered all the men of the tribe to start making a carpet out of deer skins so he could cover the ground around the village. Instead, a clever young brave made a pair of moccasins for the chief and the problem of sore feet was solved without having to kill all of the deer to try and carpet the whole world. Parents must learn to let their children learn. Failure, struggle and practice are all part of a child’s curriculum to becoming a successful adult. They are the moccasins to help children navigate a world that is not as forgiving as the parents who love them.

I know it’s hard. We cherish our children and protecting them is part of our job. I know that better than most because I’ve been a parent all of my life! Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun. Exhibit A is when my oldest son was taking his first steps. He tripped over a piece of invisible fuzz on the carpet and fell down. He looked at Kim and me and started crying. It took a lot of effort on our part not to run over and pick him up and comfort him. Instead we told him he was okay. And he then used the same floor that had tripped him to push himself back up. It’s the perfect metaphor to sum up a parent’s job. Even though my children are adults, I still have to restrain myself at times in order to let them live their lives, mistakes and all.

Successful people know that failure is an integral part of success. Failure teaches us lessons about ourselves… about our strengths and weaknesses. And about where we need to improve as well as what goals are attainable and which are not. The New Age mantra that anyone can be anything they want is bovine-related material. Not everyone can become a singer/ musician/ professional athlete for example. Hard work, talent and a huge dose of luck are involved as well. As parents, we can have a difficult time separating our child’s success or failure from our own successes and failures as parents. It is a trap that must be avoided. To raise highly functional adults, we must give kids the support they need to succeed but allow them the room to fail. It is a tricky balancing act but it must be done. We need to heed Khalil Gibran’s admonition that ”[Our] children are not our children” (The Prophet, Ch. IV). They belong to the future and to society.

Parents need to tell each other that they are proud of their kids whether they win or lose. To do that we must start keeping score in youth sports again and do away with participation trophies. Children know the difference and adults destroy their credibility by pretending otherwise. It’s not just the kids who lose who will benefit. Kids need to learn how to accept success as well as failure. And then we need to vaccinate our schools against the polio parents who have created an environment in which the lowest performing kids end up on the Honor Roll alongside AP high school students. All of our children deserve better.