Free-Range Kids

The New York Times Thinks Helicopter Parenting Works, but It Depends How You Define It

Free-Range parenting is about fostering independence, not letting kids do whatever they want.


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A recent New York Times article argued that helicopter parenting, unfortunately, is the best strategy for raising successful kids. The piece was provocatively titled, "The Bad News About Helicopter Parenting: It Works."

But the article seemed to define helicopter parents as those who are neither total slackers, nor old-fashioned father-knows-best-so-shut-up-ers (so-called "authoritarian parents"). That leaves a lot of middle ground. How do helicopter parents operate, according to the piece?

Instead of strict obedience, they emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence—skills that will help their offspring in future workplaces that we can't even imagine yet.

To some of us (OK, me) that sounds exactly like how we raised our kids—and we don't consider ourselves helicopter parents. As Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby, points out, Free-Range/Let Grow parenting "does not mean being permissive. That's a big misconception: it's not about just letting kids do whatever they want. It's about fostering independence and ultimately responsibility. For me, that means preparing them to take on new challenges and having consequences if they break rules."


In the Times piece, which is mostly about a new book, Love, Money & Parenting by Mattias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti (admittedly, extremely cool names), the argument that supposedly proves "helicoptering" works is this:

when [the authors] analyzed the 2012 PISA, an academic test of 15-year-olds around the world, along with reports from the teenagers and their parents about how they interact, they found that an "intensive parenting style" correlated with higher scores on the test.

But are kids who scored well on academic tests necessarily more successful—in the near and long term—than kids who likes building tree houses with their brother? And is a parent who practices "an intensive style" the same thing as a helicopter parent?

Naturally, economic fears will always play a role in what we value and what we teach our kids. The article sympathizes with parents who are afraid their kids will fall off the road to riches, or even the road to a decent job. But many of the actual skills kids are going to need as functioning, open-minded adults are not the ones they get in adult-supervised resume-building activities. When they're just plain old playing, for instance, they're learning compromise, leadership, focus, and empathy. When they run an errand they're learning responsibility, efficiency, and problem-solving. These will serve them well, too.

When we deprive kids of independence, we raise Excellent Sheep: kids who are great on paper, but are also anxious and lacking an internal locus of control.

Just last week I was talking to a high school teacher from an affluent suburb where the catchphrase is Yale or jail. The teacher was hoping to figure out how to give younger kids some less helicoptered time—time for kids to just do what interests them, without someone coaching or grading them, precisely so they can spend sometime outside the Yale/Jail rat race—because, she said, "By high school, it's too late. Their anxiety is off the charts."

If parents and educators can just embrace the idea that not every moment has to be oriented toward an external goal, maybe everybody will be able to relax a bit.