Chester Goad, EdD
For the last couple of decades the term “Helicopter Parent” has become synonymous for parents others consider too involved in the lives of their children. At one time, the term “helicopter” implied “someone who hovers”. People would chuckle, “Oh, don’t mind her, she’s just a helicopter parent.” Within the last few years, the term has become increasingly biting. This concept of a helicopter parents has become an issue to contend with—they are studied, they are researched, and they are discussed at conferences and conventions. Those nosy parents must be stopped. We need a plan.
But as a university administrator who works with college students with disabilities, I’ve never been too concerned with helicopter parents. Here’s why:
When I taught high school, I was often dismayed and discouraged at how many parents suddenly seemed disinterested in the lives of their kids. It was as if after elementary and middle school, their kids no longer needed them. Parent nights at the high school level were sometimes depressing, because the parents I really hoped would come for one reason or another never showed. Sometimes I wanted to discuss challenges, struggles or concerns, but in many cases, I wanted to take an opportunity to praise kids in front of their parents. I wanted them to know they had value and potential, and that I was proud of them, and that they should be too.
Some parents of kids who were sailing through high school on their way to graduation, scholarships, college etc., showed up with a camera or a list of prepared questions. They enjoyed teacher’s reinforcements of their amazing kids and their bright futures.Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed that too.
But another type of parent often had my attention on those rare parent nights or at student conferences: Parents of students with disabilities, who are often labeled helicopter parents.
Maybe their kids were born with physical disabilities. Or maybe at some point these parents were faced with the idea that their kids didn’t learn like other students. Whether the disabilities were obvious or hidden, once these parents received a diagnosis, they did what any parent would do: Most tell me the first thing they did was cry when they considered the uncertain challenges ahead. Next they educated themselves about their child’s learning differences, or physical diagnosis. And when they realized that professionals or family didn’t understand their kid’s condition, or didn’t really know how to handle their day-to-day learning, needs, or social situations, they learned the system and the processes to address it.
Suddenly those parents became, to many people, too intrusive in the educational process, and were often blown off. So, they armed themselves with the law. They studied policies, laws, and regulations. Maybe they fought for accommodations or modifications, or they sat through lengthy board meetings. In some cases, they didn’t feel they got what they needed. In other cases they were successful, and because they did all of that, their son got what he needed and now maybe other’s children would get what they needed. They were an ever present support, resource, and champion for their daughter or their son. And yes often they hovered. For information, for equal treatment, for access to everything that other parent’s kids enjoyed, they hovered. They desperately needed reassurance everything would be ok.
And so for some, after all of that it’s hard to suddenly let go after high school. I get it. I’m thankful for those parents and I understand they want to believe that their kids, now adults will get what they qualify for in college and that they’ll be taken seriously. So I’m really not all that concerned about those parents. I think their kids are lucky to have parents who cared enough to attend parent nights and conferences, legal seminars, or board meetings. I applaud them!
But the term helicopter parent has unfortunately become interchangeable for parents who grossly overstep their bounds, intercede without giving their kids a chance to make mistakes, those who attempt to call all the shots, or who literally make unreasonable demands. Such parents may refer to the classes their kids are taking as their own, “our classes, our schedule, our professor, our homework”. They become so attached that in some cases they almost virtually assume the role of surrogate student.
I’ve found that most of the research that has been bandied about regarding helicopter parents is typically referring to what I call the “tethered parent”. But helicopter parents and tethered parents are not the same thing, so how do you know the difference? Here are 4 ways to recognize the difference between a “helicopter parent” and “tethered parent”:
Helicopter Parents are Engaged. Tethered Parents are Intrusive. Helicopter Parents are engaged parents. Often they are highly engaged. Some may say too engaged. But helicopter parents recognize their role and typically pull back when they need to. Of course they’re heavily involved but generally in age-appropriate and socially appropriate ways. Tethered parents purposefully avoid pulling back. They’re more than engaged, and definitely more than annoying. They’re often offensive, disturbing, and overly emotional in order to get what they think their kid needs.
Helicopter Parents empower. Tethered Parents enable. Helicopter Parents teach their kids about their disabilities, differences, or challenges as well as how to cope and leverage their differences, disabilities, or challenges in positive ways. They’re often present, but mostly because they want to witness their kids rising above their circumstances. Tethered parents avoid teaching their kids reality, or how to cope with mistakes or negativity. Their kids become overly dependent on their parents to take care of every problem that comes along and rarely learn to advocate for themselves. Their parents enable them by stepping in, making excuses, or protecting them often to the point of hurting them socially, educationally, relationally.
Helicopter Parents equip kids to DO for themselves. Tethered Parents simply do for things for their kids. Helicopter parents are present, and keep a watchful eye, but they prefer to see their kids develop the ability to do things on their own, and will often provide or seek opportunities for them to do that. They may regularly question teachers or request information from administration, but the goal is to ensure their son has access to the tools he needs to be successful or that their daughter has the same opportunities as other kids to develop the skills to achieve. On the other hand, rather than equipping or preparing kids, tethered parents would rather do whatever needs to be done on behalf of their kids, often a signal of lack of trust in their abilities to do it themselves, ultimately resulting in lost learning opportunities. Tethered parents may also regularly ask questions, request or provide information, but they also threaten others throughout the process.
Helicopter Parents hover for a while but eventually fly away. Tethered Parents remain attached until the situation becomes so dysfunctional that their kids or the system demands it. The problem is that often the student never demands it because they haven’t been taught to speak up or advocate for themselves.
Tethered parents are the real reasons for all the research, workshops, and seminars. Helicopter parents have unfortunately been unfairly lumped in there with them. For anyone who has worked with both, the differences are profound.
Dr. Chester Goad is a university administrator, a former K12 teacher and principal, former US Congressional staffer, and education blogger. He is co-author of Tennessee’s “Dyslexia Is Real” bill, and currently he sits on the Editorial Review Board for the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. He was recently appointed to the Board of Directors for the Association on Higher Education and Disability. A leader in education, non-profit advocacy, parenting issues, access and policy, Dr. Goad has been quoted in major newspapers, magazines, and media outlets. He is also author of the Amazon #1 Bestselling book, “Purple People Leader”. You can learn more about him at www.purplepeopleleaderbook.com or www.chestergoad.com. He and his wife live in Tennessee with their teenage son.