helicopter parenting + the case for being a bitch

Helicopter parenting: when parents hover and drop the ladder to rescue their children from challenging situations that may lead to some type of failure.

It’s been looming overhead for me lately. Specifically, with regard to “social failure” I’ve been questioning my involvement in the lives of my kindergarten twins. “Work it out on your own” is easy enough to throw out when siblings squawk about who did what to whom. Unless a Sharpie marker or saliva are involved, I am a very fair mother, laissez-faire. I abstain from the whines and tattling until pushing comes to shove. I do this at home, with play dates even, where another child will tell me how my child won’t share. “Work it out boys.” Do they? Eventually, yes. But it’s not always pretty. It’s even worse with girls.

I won’t be your friend anymore.
I won’t sit next to you.
I will tell everyone at school how mean you are.

It is then that I want to steer the helicopter over the threatening valley of social death, to facilitate the negotiations. Aren’t they capable of working through this on their own? Or do I really want to swoop in because I, a former fat kid nicknamed Moose, fear what social outcasting lies ahead for my children? Quick, let’s make nice with everyone so you’re not deemed an undesirable. How much of it is my own ego, wanting polite, kind children? Don’t children need to learn WHY it’s important to be kind (because it will make you feel good, and there are social circumstances when you are unkind, because every choice you make will shape your karmic future), rather than striving to be seen as “good” (hungry for praise)?

Boys Soccer

I am in the habit of apologizing to my children and spouse when I am in the wrong. If I catch myself raising my voice, I actually do apologize, tell my children I’m frustrated, but that it’s no reason to get loud, that I will work on it. That I’m sorry. I try to model the behavior for them, that I’m quick to correct myself, quick to take things back if I say something silly. But somehow this seems like a different type of apology than one made between friends.

What if we didn’t insist our child apologize when she hurts someone’s feelings? They’re empty words, even when you pound home the point that they wouldn’t like it done to them. If anything, it feels shaming, a scolding. “Now you apologize to him, right now.” That’s what the child really learns, a habit, but true remorse doesn’t come from shaming or from the quick and practiced apology. It comes from seeing consequences, from empathy, and it is from there that character is built.

But how does this play out on the sidelines of the soccer field, with a crowd of parents standing within earshot when your son’s friend approaches to tell you he’s upset that your son won’t share the ball? He’s telling you because he wants you to fix it, tattling, wanting you to insert your big stick. But I won’t do it. Or, perhaps he’s come to tell you that your son refuses to accept his apology, that he realizes he wasn’t nice earlier and that he’s said sorry, and still your child won’t accept the apology. I’ve tried crouching down and explaining the “shoulds” to my children. Talked about grace and how things circle back, how would we want to be treated, all that. But what if I stop that type of trying?

I realize this might mean I fail socially, that parents who’ve overheard our interaction will judge me as an unfit parent. “That must feel really lousy. I’m so sorry to hear that. I’m sure you two will figure a way to work it out.” Because, “He said he’s sorry, so you need to be a big person and accept the apology and be friends (IF ONLY FOR MY SAKE)” really isn’t working.

If I worry about my own ego and social standing among my peers, (please be friends, so I can spend more time with his mom) I fail my kids. If I swoop in and try to rescue my children from failure, social or otherwise, that’s my fail too. When they’re capable or at least capable of trying to work it out, I’ve got to let them, even if I hate the consequences. Building character in kids builds your own character as an adult, and it ain’t always pretty. I feel like the bitch mom, and I’m learning that I need to be okay with that. Okay, I don’t know what I’m learning. I don’t know what the right thing is to do, only that I’m circling near it and hope to land on the helipad soon.



  1. I think I’ve taken a different meaning from the phrase ‘helicopter parent’. What you’re describing here – another child coming to you to intervene – isn’t helicopterish in my opinion. Helicopterish would be you interupting them playing, and asking the other kid to give your child a turn. What you’re describing sounds like the opposite. When another kid comes to you I would step in and say, ‘Hang on, son, let Jimmy have a turn’, because that is character building too — to be told, no, you can’t always have everything you want, and you must consider other people’s feelings. I understand what you are saying about letting them fail, and I agree with that. But there are some things they won’t work out unless they are told, and, ‘kid, you’re hogging the ball!’ might be one of them.

    1. Very valid point. Very, particularly the part about what makes a helicopter parent is one who injects herself onto the scene, trying to clean up a mess by making one. This was perhaps a crappy example on my part, because I try to change certain details to avoid privacy issues. The very last thing my son would do is hog a ball. He is, in fact, too nice. Phil tells Lucas to kick the ball, and Luke says, “I don’t want to kick it because what if I accidentally kick someone.” I feel the need to explain this, again, because of MY ego, fearing I wouldn’t be the type of parent to teach my child to share, to not be a sore sport, etc. Of course we teach them all of these things in our home, out and about when we’re in it, as it comes up. But if the other kid had come up to me and said, “I shared the ball, apologized for hogging it earlier, and still Lucas won’t accept my apology.” What do I do then? Force my child to accept the apology? We’ve already discussed the importance and grace of accepting apologies, discussed the fact that we all make mistakes, that it’s sometimes hard to say sorry, but beyond saying, “Moving on and accepting an apology is the right thing to do or else it will fester and rot and rim your soul with black soot” I’m not sure I should get involved. Should I?

      1. This is a tough situation. I think you are right that you can’t force Lucas to accept an apology. He is entitled to his feelings, and if he isn’t ready to accept, then so be it. I think I would say something to the other kid like “I’m sorry to hear that Lucas isn’t ready to accept your apology yet. It was very good of you to apologize to him. But sometimes, when a person’s feelings are hurt, it takes them a little while to get past it. I am sure if you give Lucas a little time, he will accept your apology and you two can go back to having fun together.” Then I would probably talk to Lucas separately and remind him that sometimes we make mistakes and we are sorry for them, and that if we say we are sorry, it can hurt to have the other person refuse to accept it. I would also point out that, while it was wrong of the other boy to hog the ball, he did apologize and agree not to do it again, and that was a good start. Then I would ask him if perhaps he was ready to accept his friend’s apology and give him another chance to play more fairly.

      2. You could tell the kid that Luke may still need more time to accept the apology and that patience is needed on the part of both of them. Kids shouldn’t be forced to kiss and make up instantly just because one of them wants resolution to the situation in order to continue to play. It doesn’t work that way for adults and kids shouldn’t be made to play nice if they are not ready.

  2. As a mother, at times you have to be a cold-hearted bitch, sometimes to other parents, teachers and kids, and sometimes to your own kids . The trick is in knowing when to be a bitch to whom.

  3. I read an article about parenting once(sorry can’t remember the source) but the man talked about forcing his daughter to let her birthday party guests play with her brand new toys and how he realized that he did it out of his own ego/shame, not seeing at the time that his daughter needed time to have those toys to herself before she was ok with sharing them with others. He said he would never intervene like that again because kids will socialize at their own pace, but pushing them for our own satisfaction is selfish and harmful to their mental and emotional growth.

  4. You are absolutely right about not helicoptering and not trying to solve kid’s problems for them. Good for you! The other parents should take note. You know in your heart and mind that being objective and allowing them to settle most conflicts (I realize that in some small cases, intervention is necessary) you are reinforcing their self-confidence and resiliency. The majority of parents are ignorant and don’t critically reflect on practices such as forced and contrived (thus essentially meaningless) apologies.

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