Who Shovels Your Kids’ Rink?

Helicopter parents. We’ve been hearing about them for a few years now. These are the parents that “swoop in” – hence the name – to check in on, and take care of, their kids even after they go to college and, more recently, enter the workforce. They have become the new norm for colleges to contend with – checking up on their kids’ food, dorm conditions, performance, and more. Indeed, the term “in loco parentis” (Latin for “in the place of parents”) seems all but obsolete as part of the description of college officials, as the parents never seem to be absent for long. Except that by and large these parents aren’t there check in to see if their kids are making a good transition to independent life or working hard enough to make good grades, but rather to see if they’re being treated well. Administrators have reported the incessant pressure for better food, dorm facilities, and social opportunities coming not from students but from their parents. And some of my colleagues teaching at colleges have even told me stories of irate parents calling them to challenge grades they’ve assigned.

But this doesn’t start when a kid goes off to college. Rather, it’s the culmination of many years of doing much, perhaps too much, for our children. As one Dean of Students an excellent nearby liberal arts college once said to me: “When we were kids and wanted to play hockey” – this is Minnesota so “ice” was implied – “we’d go to the neighborhood pond, shovel off the snow, mark the boundary, and round up enough kids to play. Today, hockey rinks are prepared by the city, parents have organized leagues, and all the kid does is show up to skate. When do kids ever learn to do anything for themselves?”

It’s a great question. I have to admit that I spend a lot more time carting my kids around to various activities than my parents ever dreamed of doing. I’ve said many times that one of the best things about living in the Twin Cities is all the incredible opportunities for kids…and that one of the worst things about living in the Twin Cities is all the incredible opportunities for kids. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge my kids any of this. I actually love taking them places. But it gets back to the question of how much they do, or don’t do, for themselves and when they learn initiative, independence, and perseverance. Most of us have been taking our kids to play dates – something I’m not sure even existed when I was growing up – since they were infants. They’ve spent far more time in organized sports than in neighborhood pick-up games by the time they reach elementary school. And they depend upon parental transportation, involvement, and supervision for a galaxy of activities that I’d never even imagined as a kid.

So how much is too much? We want the best for our kids, but might that mean not only providing activities for our children but also allowing them to solve their own problems? We won’t spare any expense to give them opportunities we never had, but will we tolerate the pain and anxiety we suffer vicariously as we watch them struggle with receiving a poor grade or muddle through an awkward social interaction? If we don’t teach them that hard work pays off, that not every effort will be rewarded, and that patience and perseverance are as important as intelligence and ability, who will?

What do you think? How have you approached these challenges? Do you ever worry your kids have too much? How have you striven to parent well without over-parenting? And – perhaps most importantly – have you found a couple of other parents to think all this through with. This may be one of the toughest challenges for today’s parents. Because we love our kids so much…and because we’re all first-timers…and because so much is changing so quickly, parents can be pretty insecure about their parenting – insecurity that can be assuaged either in reaching out to each other in need or approaching parenting as a competitive sport. The first requires you to be vulnerable, so often is the road less taken. The latter, perhaps because it mimics the larger culture, seems more common, only intensifying the pressure and insecurity inherent in being a parent.

So what have you experienced as you’ve tried to balance giving your kids opportunities but also teaching them responsibility? And whom have you found to support you? And what ideas might you suggest for ways we could help each other? And is there anything your local congregation could do to support you in the God-given role of parent? As one totally struggling with all these questions, I’m eager to hear from you.

PS: Lest you think the post-image and title illustration are slightly out of season, we had four inches last week – on March 1st, actually – and this is a mild winter! Ah, life in Minnesota. :)

PPS: In addition to the NPR piece linked above, here are a couple of pieces I found interesting.
Time on the backlash against helicopter parenting.
Perspective and advice from one college professor who’s also a mother.
Lisa Belkin on whether it makes even the parents happy.
And a quick little quiz on your own parenting style.