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Is the 'helicopter parents' trend coming down to earth?

June 05, 2009|By BETSY HART / Scripps Howard News Service

Could it really be that the era of "over-parenting" is, well, over?

Probably my favorite description of the trend comes from Patricia Dalton, a clinical psychologist in Washington. In 2002, she wrote in The Washington Post about what she called "uber-parents." "They decorate their children's rooms in stimulating colors, buy educational toys, forgo playpens and give baby massages ... they let their kids interrupt them and drop everything to take advantage of every teaching moment. And perhaps most important, they take every opportunity to build up their child's self-esteem."

Dalton wrote that today's children of overindulgent parents -- whom, she says, often mistakenly give up their own personal lives entirely for their children -- "are takers, not doers or givers." She thinks kids were better off when parents (like mine) actually said things like, "If you want sympathy, look it up in the dictionary."

Fast forward. Are the fruits of "helicopter parents" obvious enough that such parenting is at last falling by the wayside?

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Writer Lisa Belkin thinks it just might be so. In an essay in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine titled, "Let the Kid Be," she wrote, "It seems as though the newest wave of mothers is saying no to prenatal Beethoven appreciation classes, homework tutors in kindergarten or moving to a town near their child's college campus so the darling can more easily have home-cooked meals." Or, at least, they are saying "no" without feeling guilty about it.

Belkin looks at a host of recent blogs and books that suggest that more and more parents have had it with overindulging and over-cajoling their kids. She wonders if the new trend is to just back off a little.

Well, it will only be a trend -- though a positive one -- and not a real change unless something fundamentally retakes hold of parents in the West: the notion that we know more than our kids, and that they need our guidance and wisdom as well as a few scraped knees, to become, well, civilized.

Belkin is right that we have a history of often wildly changing childrearing trends in this country. But throughout the major parenting course changes, there was typically, at least, the consistent belief that parents know more than our kids do. That children come into the world as flawed, even sinful little beings, and that they needed moms and dads not to do everything for them, but to guide them morally and to help shape their characters.

I'm convinced that that began to change around the time the baby boomers first became parents. (Do they have to reinvent everything?) Suddenly, we could learn as much from our kids as they from us, and we were all just walking this wonderful life path together. That's about the time we started hearing ridiculous advice like "separate the child's bad behavior from the child himself" and "building high self-esteem is the most important task of parenthood." Really? So, where does the bad behavior come from, and what about learning to have esteem for others? And that's just for starters.

The need for strong moral guidance was gone -- or at least deemed unfashionable -- so instead, now more affluent parents with typically fewer kids anyway could pour themselves into their children with a new fervor. Instead of the often-messy issue of getting to a child's heart, it became lot more fun to tweak at the edges of the special darling's development path with just the right expert advice, and lessons, and skill sets and an understanding of the moral imperative of recycling. And doesn't all that burnish the parents' image, too?

I'm with Belkin that many parents and maybe our culture as a whole are fed up with "uber-parenting." But until we again grasp the fact that the biggest danger facing our kids is the fact that "foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child," as Scripture says, I fear this newest trend will stay just that.

Betsy Hart hosts the "It Takes a Parent" radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. Reach her through betsysblog.com.

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