Don’t Want To Be a Helicopter Parent? Help your Child Develop Healthy Autonomy

Helicopter Parenting - Ny, Ny - Triveca Play Therapy

By Joseph Sacks, LCSW

Some parents like to be what’s called “Helicopter Parents,"

where they swoop in to do everything for their children, and never let them struggle with tasks or do anything for themselves. When taken to an extreme, this certainly doesn’t seem to be advisable as it prevents children from developing a healthy sense of autonomy, independence and self-determination. However on the other hand, we know that being a parent means performing endless acts of kindness towards our children, to give selflessly. This is good for the parents, as they learn to become noble givers, and good for the children, who become filled up to overflowing with those acts of kindness, and in turn by example learn to be kind to others as well. So if I pour a glass of milk for a 6 year old am I doing him a kindness, since he may be too tired, frustrated or immature to pour it for himself, or if I let him pour it, am I doing him the greater kindness of letting him learn responsibility and autonomy?

Am I being a Helicopter Mom?

The answer is we need to judge each case by itself, and say, “Which action should I take that is most emotionally healthy for the child in this instance?” Would you say of a three month old baby, she needs to learn autonomy by feeding burping and changing herself? Would you help your 35 year old child get dressed? How do we get from here to here? The answer is gradually! Child needs to gradually learn the responsibility of autonomy. If pouring a glass of milk for himself would be a positive learning experience, where he would be pleasantly engaging in a new skill, then you are doing him a favor by letting him do it. But if he is too young and the responsibility is overwhelming for him at that moment, or he has already mastered the skill but is simply too tired or frustrated to do it for himself, it is a great act of kindness to do it for him.

Helicopter Parenting - Ny, Ny - Triveca Play Therapy

Take getting dressed. 

Some, maybe Helicopter Parents, insist on dressing their children until a later age than may be healthy, and may be depriving them of the experience of learning autonomy. And some parents say, he can dress himself, he’s done it before so I’m not helping him anymore, even though he is crying and begging for help and is constantly late for the school bus. So we need to find a balance here. The solution is to allow the child to dress himself when it’s emotionally healthy for him to practice the skill. You know this is happening when he enjoys it and when it is a satisfying experience for him, when getting dressed alone makes him feel good about himself, grown up and independent. However if he is tired, frustrated, preoccupied with other activities or simply needing a break, it is a great act of kindness and is emotionally healthy for the child for you to dress him, even though he is technically capable of doing it for himself. The attention and love expressed through dressing him fulfills an important emotional need. However in another instance a child may be craving independence and trying to help him get dressed or tell him what to wear will be an intrusion. So we need to be wise and do in each case what’s best for the child. How do we which is the correct path? By asking, does my child resent my doing this for him? Would he enjoy doing the task by himself? Would I make him happy if I do it for him?

See my blog post, How not to spoil your child, here.

Fear of Being Helicopter Parents Can Be a Problem! Therefore, Err On The Side Of Involvement

Helicopter Parenting - Ny, Ny - Triveca Play Therapy

The great play therapists say we should never do for a child what he can do for himself, but if he asks for help, we should give it to him.
Although there seems to be a great fear going around of becoming helicopter parents, most parents who come into my office are making the mistake of not helping their children enough at daily tasks. “He’s old enough to do it by himself! I’m not going to do it for him.” We tend to forget that they are fully children until they’re 18 and their autonomy needs to be supported with healthy parental involvement. When you see that they need it, don’t be afraid to err on the side of doing things for them. It’s a virtue to perform acts of kindness to people outside the home, but all the more so to our own children. 

For a discussion of the secret of how to deal with a child who acts immaturely for his age, click here.
Please be advised that, the above represents a parenting ideal, and I don’t expect anyone to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to incorporate new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my informative parenting blog, the specialties on this website, or download one of my interesting free reports. If you are experiencing challenges raising your child, and would like professional guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may give me a call at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!

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