Last year I read a wonderful piece in the New York Times about the mother of a college freshman who jumped on a plane when her daughter called to say she had mononucleosis. In any other time a mom visiting, and subsequently taking care of her sick 18-year old, would be utterly unremarkable. But the specter of the helicopter parent hangs low over all of our heads. Before we act, before we parent, before we answer the call of those who love and need us, we ask ourselves, “Is that hovering?”
Sure, there are parents who go too far, who swoop in on a college campus when their kid has the sniffles. But most parents, the vast majority of people you and I know, are just good parents. And the risk with labels like these, and the litany of apocryphal tales of extreme parenting by the few is, it gets into the heads of most parents who are doing a great job of raising their kids. Helicopter parenting has leaked into the lexicon and been pointed at moms and dads who are doing no more than being loving, caring and concerned parents.
You are NOT a Helicopter Parent
1. You are not a helicopter parent if you are worried when your child in college is sick.
College kids get really ill and sometimes need help. Most may never have dealt with a doctor on their own because parents, by law, need to approve treatment until they are 18. A dorm room or college apartment is a dismal place to be sick. And, until now, they have probably asked us about most over the counter medications they have taken. It would truly be a shame if worrying about some silly label kept us from giving our kids, at any age, the care they need when they are unwell.
[Read next: what parents need to know about college students and healthcare]
2. You are not a helicopter parent if you are trying to help a desperately unhappy new freshman through this rough patch.
Everyone needs people to whom they can confide and, by listening to your kid, offering suggestions and words of support, you are showing them how we care for those we love. Freshmen can feel deeply alone in their unfamiliar settings. They can face all sorts of social rejection from new acquaintances. Providing a sounding board and sympathetic ear, even if it is every day for a while, is not being a helicopter parent but a loving parent.
[Read next: What to say to to help a homesick freshman]
3. You are not a helicopter parent if you do your teen’s laundry, make them a meal, run an errand for them or do any number of things (at times) that you know they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves.
Many teens are working hard at school and putting in their best effort. Their day starts too early and homework ends too late. They can be exhausted to the point of being overwhelmed. By doing some of these small things for them, we convey to them that we respect their effort and that this is one way families show their love for each other.
4. You are not a helicopter parent if you remind your high school student that they are making decisions now that will impact their future.
And you may need to remind them far more than once. This may begin to sound like nagging but, letting them fail just because of their own immaturity, may be trying to teach them lessons they are not ready to learn. Some kids can seemingly handle independent life at 12, such is their maturity. Others struggle with independence into the college years. Sure you can blame yourself and say you should have done less, let them struggle more, but here is the truth. Examples of each of these types of kids exist in the same families where the parents did the exact same things. Kids progress on their own path in every aspect of maturation, why should gaining independence be any different.
5. You are not a helicopter parent if help your kid, support your kid, offer encouragement and, at times, (in the words of psychologist, Dr. Lisa Damour) let them dump their emotional trash on you.
There is much our kids need to learn about independence in high school and college but they can only take on what they are ready for. The answer is surely to do what each of your kids needs. Help the one along who is still needier, knowing he will have his moment. Step away from the one who has control of their lives and just let them fly. If by listening to their problems, giving them advice and offering a hand from time to time we can help them learn to take on the challenges in their lives, that does not make us helicopter parents but, rather, just parents, trying our best.
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