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Helicopter Parents Harm Their Kids… or Do They?

Helicopter parenting is the latest way parents can ruin children–at least that is what the popular press would have you believe. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath details how she goes about assessing media claims on the topic.

Have you heard the news? Helicopter parents are ruining their kids? Here are just a few of the recent headlines:

I clicked on one titled “Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out” (Slate) and read it looking to see which of the author’s claims were supported by empirical data (i.e. data gathered via scientific observation or experimentation) and which other claims were only supported by anecdotal data or anecdata (i.e. data that comes from a single person’s non-scientific observations of the world they live in).

How to Scrutinize an Article

My goal for this piece is to not get at the “truth” of helicopter parenting. Instead, I want to show you how I go about judging the credibility of an author’s claims. But first, what is helicopter parenting? Helicopter parents are perceived to be overinvolved in their child’s lives to the point the child can not make decisions for themselves.

Author’s Credentials

The first thing I do to establish an article’s credibility is to examine the author’s credentials. The author of “Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out”, Julie Lythcott-Haims, is a former dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University. She has the personal experience working with students (and their parents) to discuss what parents are doing (or not doing) to their children. Lythcott-Haims goes beyond her andecdata and pair it with scholarly research on the subject. What troubles me, however, is that her book–How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success–is not based in scientific research she conducted herself. She is able to use her credentials as someone who worked in the trenches dealing with the population in question, but she is not an expert on parenting (despite having children of her own). My assessment: I would not completely disregard her argument, but these also are not the strongest credentials either.

The Research Claims

Next I check all of the studies the author cites in their article to evaluate if they are trustworthy and also to verify that they actually say what the author claims they do. This is something that can be very difficult for most people to do as many of the studies are published in research journals that require you to pay before you can read them. Also, Slate didn’t make this any easier as the pages they linked to do not take you to the actual research cited. After I did some Googling I was able to track down some of the studies by using my school’s library (which paid for my access to the research journals).

As I read through the Slate article, once again, I found the problem with the popular press articles on helicopter parenting is that they rarely (if ever) address “the chicken and the egg problem.” In particular, bold claims are made that helicopter parenting ruins college students, backfires, or causes depression and anxiety. Here “the chicken and the egg” question is which came first, the parenting style or the child’s behavior and experiences? Is it possible that the parents of children who were already experiencing depression or anxiety modified their parenting style in response to their child’s mental health issues?

I dug deeper into the cited studies to find out what they actually report. They also do not know which came first: the parenting style or the mental health issues. Lythcott-Haims provides a summary of the research making the connection between negative mental health outcomes and helicopter parenting and even she admits there is a correlation, but studies do not demonstrate causation.

Let’s take a deeper look at some specific claims Lythcott-Haims makes in the article and then pair them against what the researchers said in their articles. Lythcott-Haims reports:

  • A 2012 study of 438 college students reported in the Journal of Adolescence found “initial evidence for this form of intrusive parenting being linked to problematic development in emerging adulthood … by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.”2

The authors note several limitations to their study. One in particular is especially notable: “[W]e have generally proposed that helicopter parenting may lead to problematic outcomes for children but it may be that child characteristics (e.g., temperament, behavior) may predict parenting behavior” (p. 1188). The authors cite previous research that supports this line of thinking.

Lythcott-Haims goes on to say:

  • A 2013 study of 297 college students reported in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students with helicopter parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life and attributed this diminishment in well-being to a violation of the students’ “basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”1

The authors of the study Lythcott-Haims cites did find that helicopter parenting is correlated with higher levels of depression (Schiffrin et al. 2014: 554). But, the authors admit in their conclusion the following: “Although in our model depression and decreased well-being were conceptualized as outcomes of helicopter parenting, it is also possible that when parents perceive their child as depressed, they may be more likely to ‘hover.’ ” (p. 555).

Later Lythcott-Haims says:

  • In 2010, psychology professor Neil Montgomery of Keene State College in New Hampshire surveyed 300 college freshmen nationwide and found that students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and actions and more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious.

I could not find the specific study cited above. Instead, I found a more recent study on the topic by Montgomery (and others).3 The authors establish a relationship between parents’ anxiety and overparenting (i.e., helicopter parenting). They state, “it stands to reason that parents who feel that their child is vulnerable or who are apprehensive about the direction in which their child is headed might engage in the type of highly directive and overcontrolling behaviors that contribute to overparenting.” In other words, research does find a correlation between parenting style and mental health outcomes. Research does not find causal order. It is still unknown which came first: the parenting style or the mental health outcome.

Being a Critical Consumer of Information

We live in a world filled with news stories, books, and research articles that want to tell us how the world works. Each of us has to be a critical consumer of the information we come into contact with. As you read anything (even this blog) you should always be asking yourself, “how does the author know this?” To make your way through the modern information tidal wave, each of us has to critically examine authors, their evidence, their claims, and their motivations.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How would you establish and author’s credibility? Why is this important?
  2. What is the difference between correlation and causation? Much of sociological research establishes correlations and not causation. Why might correlation be insufficient with these claims?
  3. Find an article from the popular press that makes research claims by citing scholarly work. Establish the credibility of the author to make these claims. Then, find one of scholarly works cited to determine if the author is drawing legitimate conclusions from the study.
  4. If you were a scientist who wanted to know if helicopter parenting causes negative mental-health outcomes (i.e. depression and anxiety), how could you design a study that would provide you the answer?

References:

  1. Schiffrin, Holly H., Miriam Liss, Haley Miles-McClean, Katherine A. Gear, Mindy J. Erchull, and Taryn Tashner. 2014. “Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being.” Journal of Child and Family Studies 23:548-57.
  2. Padilla-Walker, Laura M. and Larry J. Nelson. 2012. “Black Hawk Down?: Establishing Helicopter Parenting as a Distinct Construct from Other Forms of Parental Control During Emerging Adulthood.” Journal of Adolescence 35:1177-90.
  3. Segrin, Chris, Alesia Woszidlo, Michelle Givertz, and Neil Montgomery. 2013. “Parent and Child Traits Associated with Overparenting.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 32(6):569-95.