By Akhil Shahani
Have you done any of the following in the last year?
1. Completed your child’s school project for her?
2. Ensured that each hour of your child’s day is involved in a useful activity?
3. Discussed your child’s test scores with other parents?
If you’ve replied “yes” to any of the above, you may be a helicopter parent. This is a term applied to parents who constantly “hover over” their child and are deeply involved in each aspect of their education, extra-curricular activities and free time.
Interestingly, this is a recent phenomenon. Many of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s don’t remember our parents being as deeply involved in our lives as some of us are today with our kids. We were given lots of free time to play with our friends and there was less pressure on getting high marks in school. Surprisingly, in spite of this “neglect”, many of us grew up to have happy and successful lives.
So, why do parents these days feel the need to be more in control of their children’s lives? Mainly because there is the general feeling that kids nowadays face more competition to get into the ‘right’ college and get the ‘right’ job than two decades ago. This fear is exploited by many private education companies, like tuition classes, hobby classes, education technology vendors, etc, that make you feel that you are a bad parent unless you make your child get at least 96 per cent in their class 6 exams, while simultaneously being the captain of their junior football team and an under-12 Junior Chess grandmaster! Of course, they are happy to sell you their services to make that happen. The problem is that being a helicopter parent often sets up your child for failure in the long term.
Why is that?
Scientific research over the last decade has discovered the three main characteristics developed in childhood that help people succeed later in life. These are Grit, Curiosity and a Growth Mindset.
Life constantly makes you face challenges that cause you to fail. A high level of grit (or persistence), allows you to get up from your failure and keep trying until you overcome these challenges. It’s well-known that facing repeated failure is the only path to success. People without grit tend to give up too quickly and are content to stay where they are.
Change is constant in our lives. New technologies and competitors keep disrupting the market forcing people to adapt to survive. The ones that do well in this environment are those who are willing to constantly learn new skills and knowledge to deal with these changes. This requires a person to have a healthy level of curiosity, that makes them keep learning lifelong.
Building grit and curiosity requires stepping away from a ‘fixed mindset’ developing what is called a ‘growth mindset’. A fixed mindset is when you believe your intelligence and capabilities are fixed for life. For example, you could say “I am bad at maths, so I can never build a career in finance”. A growth mindset on the other hand, is when you realise that all your capabilities can be developed with hard work and focus. For example, “I currently find maths difficult, but I want to build a career in finance. So, I will take some online courses to help me develop my maths skills.”
A helicopter parent limits the development of these characteristics in their child. Constantly shielding your child from failing, prevents her from developing the grit needed to face problems and overcoming them herself. Not letting your child daydream, play or explore the outside environment limits her joy of discovering new things by herself and stunts her curiosity levels. Telling your child that she is not good at doing something and to try something else gives her a fixed mindset, rather than a growth mindset. Many children of helicopter parents grow up to have higher levels of anxiety, poorer coping skills and may also be more prone to depression.
So how can you prevent yourself from becoming a helicopter parent?
The most important thing is to let your child be. Give her lots of free time after studies for unstructured playing with friends. Take her to bookshops and museums to explore her interests. Let her play sports with no expectation of winning trophies. Give her responsibilities to complete specific household chores for the family. Give them a lot of encouragement but leave them to face their own challenges.
Remember that you want your child to ultimately grow up to be happy and successful. Help them do so through love and not fear.
(The writer is Managing Director, The Shahani Group.)