There is one key reason our generation (and, I’d argue, the generation before us) have become helicopter parents—fear. And there are two key drivers to the pervasiveness of fear in this generation—our inability to accurately judge risk and having kids later in life. To break it down a bit further …
Remember how our parents would leave us in the car when they ran into the drug store to get something? Or how they would send us out of the house unsupervised to go ride our bikes without knee and elbow pads? Remember how if we got a bad grade our parents would confront us rather than the teacher? Yeah, so do I.
Well as we all know, the helicopter generation would never perpetrate this sort of “neglect.” Why not? Because our parents thought nothing bad would really happen to us, and in fact, a few bumps and bruises (physical and emotional) would turn us into better adults. Whereas helicopter parents are terrified that their children will be kidnapped from the car, will fall off their bikes and kill themselves, or will have their self-esteem destroyed by a bad grade. This extreme fear then causes them to over-parent or hover over nearly every aspect of their children’s lives to ensure nothing bad ever happens to them (thus the term “helicopter parent”).
(And the mass media’s constant coverage of negative events, making them seem commonplace, acts as an accelerant to this natural behavior by helicopter parents.)
If the helicopter generation was actually protecting their kids from previously underappreciated dangers, then this increased level of fear would be justified, and we could explain the emergence of this generation of parents by saying that their ability to accurately identify risk had improved over previous generations’. The problem is that helicopter parents’ ability to judge risk is not superior. In fact, humans have been and continue to be incredibly poor risk assessors.
Some evidence? Helicopter parents would never leave their children alone in the car, yet will drive them all over town to school, soccer practice, and birthday parties. The problem is, they should be more worried about putting them in the car in the first place as a child is ten times more likely to die in a car accident than be kidnapped by a stranger (and 1,500 times more likely to be injured in a car accident)*. Parents nowadays will ask if their children’s friends have guns in their homes. Although not an imprudent question, they should be far more worried about if their friends have a pool since a child is ten times more likely to die from drowning than from accidental shooting**. And there are dozens of additional everyday examples of modern parents fearing low probability events.
And the problem is that once you begin irrationally fearing things, there is no line that can reasonably be drawn between those things that should be feared and those that should not. Thus fear creeps into every single aspect of parents’ thinking.
So the million-dollar question, then, is why are helicopter parents more fearful than generations past?
Put simply, it’s because the helicopter generation of parents are having children much later in life than previous generations. And as we age from young adulthood (previous parenting generations) into mature adulthood (the helicopter parent generation), meaningful hormonal changes take place in our bodies. These changes result in us being less brazen and more risk averse because we have a greater sense of our mortality and are therefore more fearful of the world around us (regardless of whether it is actually more dangerous). Oftentimes this new perspective results in positive behaviors. Most adults don’t graffiti public property, don’t get into bar fights every Thursday night, and don’t have a car pull them at 30 MPH on their skateboards. However, one of the negative consequences to this “prudent” behavior, is a change in how we raise children.
So it wasn’t that previous parental generations had a better sense of risk than the helicopter generation, it was simply that most of our parents were too young and “foolish” to even consider the risks of many of their behaviors. They didn’t stop to think about how we could have been kidnapped when they left us in the car or how we could have hurt ourselves while riding our bikes. And it turns out that this disregard for things commonly considered dangerous today was a good thing because they never should have feared those things in the first place.
However, the helicopter generation is far more fearful because their hormonal levels are those of parents older than our parents when they first had us. Combine this fear with our inability to judge risk, and you get helicopter parents.
* According to the CDC, more than 1,200 children ages 14 years and younger died as occupants in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2010, and approximately 171,000 were injured. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical kidnappings.” Stereotypical kidnapping is defined as involving someone the child does not know or a slight acquaintance who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently (Page on Missingkids.com, page 7).
** According to the CDC, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United State from 2005-2009, and approximately 20% of those were children 14 and younger. According to the CDC, there were 62 unintentional deaths from firearms in 2010.