Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

ParentsFizkes / DreamstimeA 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.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime

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  • Crusty Juggler||

    "I got my first job when I was nine working at a sheet metal factory. In two weeks I was running the floor. Child Labor Laws are ruining this country."

  • esteve7||

    Well of course they do. People need to grow up to be dependent on others. It's the Times' whole user base.

    The people I know who most oppose personal responsibility, independence, and freedom, are all raging proggies that read the NYT.

  • Mongo||

    Lenore Skenazy is sitting alone at the bar when Suderman grabs a bar stool next to her and sez: "How about a Slippery Nipple?" *suppresses laffter*

    Lenore giggles and replies: "Maybe...."

    AÖC, washing mugs, looks on and thinks 'DC elite - so cosmopolitan!'.

  • spork||

    Bartender, give me an entendre, and make it a double.

    So he gave it to her.

  • John||

    Sure it works, if you consider an explosion of mental illness and an entire generation of kids who can't deal with stress or failure "working.

  • NoVaNick||

    Yep. I know a guy I went to high school with whose mom monitored his every move, wrote his papers and college applications for him, determined to get him into an Ivy (didn't work). He became a major pothead and flunked our after his first semester. Last I heard from him when he was well into his 30s, he was unemployed and living with his sister

  • Still Curmudgeoned (Nunya)||

    The mom is still mad trying to figure out why twice she wasn't accepted at Harvard.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    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.

    Yep. This is one main benefit of observing Shabbat.

  • Echospinner||

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Do you suppose the NYT is in favor of more regulation and control over people's lives? Hardly surprising they would favor "helicopter parenting" no matter how you define it [and besides it is associated with those icky and self serving libertarian types].

  • Rossami||

    And 2+2=5 ... as long as I get to arbitrarily redefine what 2 means.

    It's a junk article because what they call "helicopter parenting" isn't.

  • Brandybuck||

    2+2=5 for sufficiently large values of 2

  • Bender B. Rodriguez||

    We are past the era of helicopter parenting, I have entered into the era of the Zamboni parent.

  • Rich||

    How do helicopter parents operate, according to the piece?

    Instead of strict obedience, they emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence

    Ah, yes -- independence. That's why it's called *helicopter* parenting!

  • jjsaz||

    I like how their metric is test scores. So helicopters produce kids that perform well at uniformity? Oh yeah! Automatons of the World Unite! How do we know that successful test takers are successful in general? How do we know that they lead fuller, richer lives? Short answer, we don't.

    However, based on all the unhappy, unemployed millennials trying to pay off their Women's Studies degrees, it doesn't do them any good, whatsoever.

  • Brandybuck||

    There would be at most a couple dozen Womens Studies Degrees nationwide if the students had to pay for it themselves. They exist because the government guarantees their loans and the parents never learned to say "no" to their children.

  • NoVaNick||

    So the NYTimes comes out against free range parenting? Could this have anything to do with the association between that and libertarianism, which is an icky alt-right concept. Oh and I thought standardized tests were sexist, racist, and classist according to all the right-thinking progressive academics.

  • James Pollock||

    " Oh and I thought standardized tests were sexist, racist, and classist according to all the right-thinking progressive academics."

    Standardized tests have inherent bias, based in large part on who writes the test and decides what a "right" answer is. In mathematics, there's usually a clear right answer and answers which are not (but even there, when you get high enough, you start getting problems that have more than one right answer. Integral calculus literally produces an infinite number of correct answers. History and language, though, have "preferred" answers rather than "correct" ones.

  • Believe and Obey||

    That's funny coming from a group of people who's parents raised them to work at the ...New York Times.

  • James Pollock||

    Meh. Helicopter parenting works... for some children. Free-ranging works... for some children (note that the two groups of children overlap substantially).

    Assuming that one approach works for all children... is lunacy.

  • qoheleth||

    Oh sure, you can say something works if you define it to be something else. The problem is that helicopter parenting was a term invented to describe parents who hover over their children to prevent them from falling into any harm. That doesn't sound like "emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence" to me. It sounds like what I've understood free-range parenting to be and what we practised with our child.
    Nice try NYT, but you can't simply change the definitions in order to say it works.

  • Real Books||

    I'm all in favor of children being taught how to fly helicopters!

  • tommyguns2||

    They don't define helicopter parenting. It looks to me that they've concluded the obvious: parents that are involved with their kids lives and take an active role in encouraging the importance of education and foster critical thinking have children that outperform kids who've been placed in front of the TV for 8 hours a day as a pacifier because the parents aren't interested in being parents.

    what an amazing, profound insight....


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