Enter the Helicopter parent

Last Updated: Mon, Sep 17, 2012 03:54 hrs

Delhi resident Dhruv Dhiman (name changed) knew from when he was a child that he had to make it to IIT. After he was born, his mother left her job and was perpetually around, pushing him towards IIT. After every exam, the boy would be taken to temples. Dhiman, now 18, didn’t make it to IIT. So his parents paid a hefty sum to get him admitted to a reputable engineering college in the US. Along with his bags, they packed theirs and accompanied him to college and stayed on to see him settled in. But that wasn’t the end of it. His father has told him that in a year, he must score enough to get a transfer to a world-renowned university nearby.

It emerges that the Dhimans, otherwise regular, caring parents, suffer from an ‘affliction’ which goes by the name of ‘helicopter parenting’. These are parents who will constantly hover around their child, physically or psychologically, and micromanage every aspect of his life. A 21st century phenomenon, it is being seen increasingly among Indian parents. Right from the time the child is a toddler, through school, well into college, and at times even in his job, these parents define and direct the games he plays and how he plays them, the subjects or friends he chooses, and at times even the job he picks.

Some companies speak of how parents accompany their son or daughter to the job interview or call up the employer to find out details of the organisation their child will be working in. HR departments are also having to deal with parents calling up to negotiate the salary of their offspring.

  • Allow — and encourage – your child to deal with problems, be it in school, workplace or in relationships, instead of rushing to solve them for him
  • Guide/advise but allow him to make choices, else you risk robbing him of motivation and the ability to make decisions
  • There are situations in which your child can cope without your help. Accept this
  • Encourage the child to try; it helps build confidence and competence
  • It’s a myth that a parent’s foremost duty is to save his/her child from every painful or unpleasant situation. It’s, after all, not a utopian world he’ll be living in
  • Failures are inevitable; treat them as a lesson. Let life’s lessons happen
  • Do not make parenting the be-all and end-all of your existence. Children find it oppressive and are likely to rebel when they get a chance
  • Allow play for play’s sake. Not everything has to be about edutainment. It kills the child’s natural creativity and hinders critical thinking skills
  • A helicopter parent can turn the child into a submissive individual with poor social skills or an outright rebel
  • Take time out to truly listen to the child. Else they will look upon your presence also as an absence

A 2010 study by Veritas Prep, a Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) preparation company, shows how helicopter parents have invaded business school campuses across India. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that a survey conducted at 50 renowned business schools found that admission officers had to deal with “pushy or overbearing parents” who, instead of helping the applicant’s case, compromise his chance of admission. In undergraduate campuses, the presence of such parents is even more visible, so much so that some colleges have developed special websites for parents, hold information sessions and organise campus tours for them, much like the orientation sessions in primary and play schools.

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The extent of helicopter parenting may vary from mild to extreme but it often proves to be counterproductive, say counsellors and child psychologists. For example, when a class of eight-year-olds from Delhi went on a picnic, the parents of one child followed the bus in their car. They may have done this simply out of extreme concern for their child, given that newspapers are flooded with reports of accidents during school trips. To the child, however, this sends out a different message — that his parents perhaps do not trust him and this exposes him to the mockery of his peers. Some children, say psychologists, might also feel reassured that their parents are always there for them. Such messages take root and the child does not learn to be an independent, responsible individual who can take care of himself, cautions Suneel Vatsyayan, relationship counsellor and CEO of Connect counseling and training solutions. Vatsyayan has been working with a couple whose micro-parenting has made their son, now 26, socially isolated and bereft of the motivation to do anything.

Now mobile phones have given helicopter parents another tool to keep tabs long-distance. No wonder, University of Georgia professor Richard Mullendore called cell phones “the world’s longest umbilical cord”.

In another incident, a woman accompanying her 12-year-old daughter to a birthday party in Gurgaon decided to sit in the room where the children were playing. When they decided to dance, the daughter begged the woman to go out and sit with the other parents. “If you cannot dance in front of me, how will you dance on stage in school?” retorted her mother and stayed put. There may not have been much to that remark, but for the girl it turned a fun-filled activity into yet another exercise where she felt she had to prove herself to her mom.

“There is no play left for children” says Gowri Ishwaran, founder principal of Sanskriti School in Delhi. Which is why, she says, markets today are flooded with educational toys for children. “Nuclear families have led to an overinvolvement of parents with their children. They watch over every activity of the child and try to place in it terms of whether or not it is equipping him to be successful in the future, socially and professionally,” says Ishwaran. Schools, she says, have to particularly intervene when it’s time for the student to choose his high school subjects — science, arts or commerce. “That’s the time we really have to get down and counsel parents to let the child pursue his interest.”

A teacher who teaches classes two to five in a leading school in Noida says she often gets SMSes, notes or visits from parents wanting to know why she deducted half a mark from a test. “Sometimes they are very belligerent.” She has noticed that children of parents who are constantly hovering around them, doing their projects or assignments and fighting for their grades, are not very decisive and will not take the lead in group projects. “Or, they are very aggressive because they know they have their parents backing them.”

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The Chinese are known to be obsessive parents. Read Harvard Girl by the parents of a young Chinese girl on how they prepared her for Harvard from the time she was a child to understand how far they can go. India too has plenty of ‘Harvard’ girls and boys succumbing to the ambitions of their helicopter parents. Dhruv Dhiman is one such example. On the face of it, he is just another child living out his parent’s dreams. But those who have seen him closely say that while he’s reserved in front of his parents, he’s aggressive and sometimes bullies children when he’s out of their sight.

“Parenting is tricky,” says Amit Sen, child and adolescent psychiatrist who runs the Children’s First Clinic in Delhi. The word, he adds, is yet to be defined in the dictionary. “A very dynamic question which a parent needs to answer is: when to be around and when to withdraw,” says Sen. “Parents feel that in this competitive world, if they are not constantly watching over the child or protecting him, he will miss the bus or not grow up to be a happy and successful individual.”

Such children, says Vatsyayan, will eventually find ways to avoid the parents or will start acting in a manner to please the parent to be able to negotiate with them. “Spoonfeed him and as an adult he will always need someone to lean on,” says Vatsyayan. “At work too, he will be able to manage only when things are spelt out or defined for him.” That is not something any parent, helicopter or otherwise, would want for the child.

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