Free-Range Kids

Does Helicopter Parenting Turn Kids into Depressed College Students?

New book argues yes



Julia Lythcott-Haims' pleads with parents to step back and let kids make their own decisions —and mistakes—in this excerpt from her new book, How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, which recently appeared at Slate:

The data emerging confirms the harm done by asking so little of our kids when it comes to life skills, yet so much of them when it comes to academics.

The data is alarming. A survey of college counseling center directors found 95 percent of them believe that the number of students with significant psychological problems is a "growing concern on campus." Lythcott-Haims saw this first-hand when she was dean of freshman at Stanford University. But, she writes:

The mental health crisis is not a Yale (or Stanford or Harvard) problem; these poor mental health outcomes are occurring in kids everywhere. The increase in mental health problems among college students may reflect the lengths to which we push kids toward academic achievement, but since they are happening to kids who end up at hundreds of schools in every tier, they appear to stem not from what it takes to get into the most elite schools but from some facet of American childhood itself.

Peter Gray has argued the same thing in his book Free to Learn. When kids don't get a chance to play on their own, they grow fearful and depressed because only during playtime do they get to be the adults—to learn how to make decisions, deal with consequences, solve problems and really be a person instead of a precious possession or pet.

What I hope people don't take away from this research, however, is the idea there is one "right" way to parent. There isn't. There's merely a growing recognition that Free-Ranging is not dangerous or nutty:

Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, says that there are three ways we might be overparenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm:

  1. When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
  2. When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
  3. When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.

Levine said that when we parent this way we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience, to figure out what makes them happy, to figure out who they are. In short, it deprives them of the chance to be, well, human. Although we overinvolve ourselves to protect our kids and it may in fact lead to short-term gains, our behavior actually delivers the rather soul-crushing news: Kid, you can't actually do any of this without me.

That has always been the message of Free-Range Kids: Our children are safer and more competent than fear-crazed society tells us they are. It's recent social custom that practically mandates helicopter parenting—in some cases insisting on it from a legal standpoint.

So let's not rag on parents for doing yet another thing wrong. Let's just consider this another valid point Free-Rangers can bring up to help explain why our philosophy is perfectly healthy—more healthy, in fact, than the alternative.

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  1. Our children are safer and more competent than fear-crazed society tells us they are.

    There aren’t many “free range” kids attending colleges as young adults BECAUSE THEY’VE ALL BEEN KIDNAPPED OFF THE PLAYGROUNDS.

  2. “A survey of college counseling center directors found 95 percent of them believe that the number of students with significant psychological problems is a “growing concern on campus.”

    So 95% of people in a particular job think their job is of critical importance. What were they going to say ‘naw, no one here really needs the services we provide.’ I’m afraid that’s not very impressive as evidence of anything.

    1. This. Although i agree with the article, that data point is so unpersuasive that it actually detracts from the larger point.

    2. “College counseling” isn’t the same as psychology. College counsellors are usually people who advise on what courses to take, how to get financial aid, how to find tutoring if you’re struggling academically, etc.

      College counsellors would refer students to psychologists if they suspect psychological problems.

  3. I graduated fairly recently (2010) and feel like I got out at just the right time. Since then, my alma mater has cracked down on their students far more than they used to and a lot of the crazies on campus have loudly asserted themselves. All this has made me question if I would have made the same decision had I graduated high school this past year. Further, if colleges keep increasing tuition and eroding the ideal college experience, why will people want to go? Sure, a lot of jobs require a degree before they’ll even look at you, but one can get a degree for a lot less $$ if they went somewhere else besides my alma mater.

    I keep thinking about Tony lamenting in the pilot of The Sopranos that he feels like he got in at the tail end of something that was once meaningful and important (the mafia) but now doesn’t like what he sees

    1. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the “solution” to the Great Depression was “borrow on your grandchildren” and that you are the grandchildren.

  4. I saw this yesterday. My wife and I were fascinated by this part

    One kid’s father threatened to divorce her mother if the daughter didn’t major in economics.

  5. I used to know this lady whose parenting style would definitely have fit in with the “helicopter” label. The poorest of her three kids makes around $100/hr as a junior pharmaceutical exec. In fact, I’ve never met a “helicoptered” person who wasn’t a successful, well-adjusted person. Is this a bad thing?

  6. It’s because I sympathize with this narrative (that kids should be given more lattitude to learn resiliency and so lead happier adult lives) that I think it’s important to be skeptical of these reports. Subjective observations and anecdotes might be exaggerating or inventing a trend because that trend fits the zeitgeist.

    So while it may be that overparenting has resulted in more emotional kids, we might instead find that the anecdotes are overblown (more experts see emotional problems because they hear about it in the news) or that the statistics are true but reflect little change (like if a lower threshold of anxiety or unhappiness is now medicalized).

  7. And lets not forget helicopter school administrators at every level

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