I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, having read and heard many stories about the phenomena for years now, but seeing it play out as it did was still odd. I was standing in a hallway of a college dormitory backing a fellow officer, an FTO, and his trainee while they addressed a young woman who’d been caught by Campus Security smoking pot in her room. With us was the campus officer and a Residential Life staffer, and while we were there each fielded calls from their respective offices that “_______________’s mother called and needs you to call her back as soon as possible.” Each of the calls were about different mothers and students.
After dealing with the chastened and freshly cited weed puffer, I asked them if that was a common thing, receiving and being expected to return calls to parents, and how often something like that happened? They explained it was, and “all the time.” It was a routine part of their days, both normal and largely expected by parents and students alike. And although students are legally adults with rights to, and expectations of, privacy from even their parents, many willingly abdicate those rights.
This was a far cry from my own college experience. Sitting before Dr JoEllen Jacobs on just my second day of college classes, we were told that if had a problem, it was ours to solve. If we had an issue with a grade, a teacher, a roommate, or anything else to do with university life, no one wanted – or would – talk to Mommy or Daddy for us so don’t even bother trying. You are all adults now and are expected to manage your own lives. Most of us embraced the freedom and sense of autonomy that came with our newly discovered adulthood and the college experience was about much more than books and classes, with self-discovery and the shedding of adolescence an even more important priority. And for most of us, it seemed our parents were quite pleased we were moving on.
Things seem different now. The concept and use of the term “Helicopter Parenting” is not new, first appearing in the 1969 book Between Parent & Teenager by Dr Haim Ginott, to describe how a teen complained about how his mother “hovers over me like a helicopter.” More recently, it gained wide traction in the early 2000s, especially among college administrators and instructors complaining students’ parents were more and more involved in their now-adult children’s lives and educations, rushing in to fix anything that went wrong, maintaining daily – or multiple times per day – contact with them via cell phone and other personal media, calling professors to discuss grades and assignments, and even relocating to be near their kids. Surprisingly, to academics raised in an earlier time, many students appeared happy with the smothering, expecting and wanting their parents involved; rather than leaving adolescence behind, for many extending it seemed to be the new goal.
The problem starts way before the kids reach young adulthood, however. The desire to help them succeed or, rather, avoid failure and disappointment, drives many parents to become overly helpful. Unstructured time is seen as unproductive time, the growing pains of childhood are misinterpreted as traumas that must be avoided, and the normal geopolitics of socialization considered “bullying.” Avoiding pain and maximizing formal learning opportunities fall front and center for many parents. Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of "How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” and former Dean of Freshman at Stanford University, writes:
"We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain. But overhelping causes harm. It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life."
Starting even in toddlerhood, many parents work hard to enable academic success, provide opportunities for growth and developmental gains (athletics, music, cultural enrichment), ensure social involvement, and sacrifice to put their kids first. As kids grow so does Mom and Dad’s investment; they become involved in every aspect of their cherished spawn’s lives, stepping up to battle any forces, real or imagined, who stand between their child and ultimate success.
For many this carries all the way through childhood and adolescence, so why not into college and beyond? A lot of parents figure they’ve bankrolled a college education in part or in full, so they are simply protecting their return-on-investment. They feel entitled to a say not only in post-secondary education but also career development. Stories abound of parents showing up on job interviews, or trying to intervene with bosses when work gets tough, as it inevitably will. It’s a hypercompetitive world, after all, so if a little help and support is good, indulgence must be even better, right? Well, no.
Of course, not all kids/young adults and parents are like this, and perhaps those we see are simply a highly visible, vocal (and annoying) minority. Still, college administrators will tell you they are a not insignificant number, plenty of bosses have stories of parents making a nuisance of themselves on behalf of their quarter-century old babies, and both groups have seen firsthand the fallout of “helicoptering” when young adults are set loose without the requisite – and frankly, basic – skill sets necessary to navigate the world alone.
Whenever we’ve conducted trainings for police officers and supervisors that has led to discussions about cops from the Millennial Generation (aka: GenY) there is inevitably a tension that fills the room as grievances with their work ethic, ability to learn and generalize information, make independent decisions, and act with confidence are aired. Again, this isn’t all young officers, but enough; even some of their contemporaries pipe up with their own complaints about fellow GenY cops. And then come the confessions: older officers with GenY kids admitting their own kids’ struggles, that they may have over-parented themselves, and how they really don’t know how to halt or undo the damage of trying too hard and protecting too much.
Raising kids in a dangerous world
For many parents, the urge to over-parent is really an urge to protect. In a media saturated world, the dangers we all grew up surrounded by become outsized in our minds. The 24-hour, perpetually repeating news cycle of really horrible sh*t!! fuels the perception of a world gone mad, filled with unprecedented dangers and predators around every corner. For police officers whose calling it is to serve, protect, and face those dangers every day, the sense is magnified when they have children of their own to protect. Of course, statistics show violent crimes are down and average citizens safer than at any time in at least a couple decades, and while predators do lurk (always have, always will) for most of us taking (and teaching) simple preventative skills is sufficient to ward them off. Still, it’s a hard sell, especially when the attitude might be “better safe than sorry.”
Except it’s really not. A growing body of both research and first-hand accounts of mental health professionals and educators is demonstrating that overprotection is making kids more emotionally fragile, less resilient, and seriously lacking the "self-efficacy" needed to become fully functioning and capable adults. Accustomed to being closely supervised, regulated, and protected by well-intentioned parents and surrogate supervisors all through adolescence, many have come to expect – and feel they need –the same emotional buffering long past the time they should be forging their own identities. When faced with real failure for the first time and without anyone to step in and fix things, many crumble. Althea has observed self-harming behavior – cutting and other self-mutilation – that was almost exclusively a coping mechanism of the grievously sexually and physically abused just 15 or 20 years ago – exhibited by kids now brought to their knees by simple setbacks such as break-ups, a bad grade, social ostracization, and other normal parts of growing up; they are substituting pain they can control to manage the pain they cannot.
Even the free speech most of us value and take for granted is suffering. Colleges, once considered bastions of free thought, spirited debate, and freely challenging social conventions and beliefs, have become battlegrounds over “safe spaces” and “speech codes” restricting ideas that might cause unease. High-profile protests at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Yale, Northwestern, and Amherst, among many others are, in many ways, pushback against debate and freedom of expression that makes any student uncomfortable. In a recent poll, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, college students favoring campus speech codes restricting speech and content in order to create a “safe” atmosphere even on public campuses where the First Amendment is violated by such codes by a 51% to 36% margin. Nervous administrators in a consumerist academic culture are loath to push back, often acquiescing to the illiberal demands of their loudest “customers.” Is it any wonder we see this among a generation taught to avoid pain? Does no one see what this portends as these same kids enter and exert influence in the workforce – including police departments – and gain political power?
Again, this is certainly not all Millennials and, as people mature even through their 20s and early 30s, most learn and temper extreme views. Older members of the generational cohort are settling in and doing well, for the most part. Still, it has been a concern for some time now and we may see more of the same before the pendulum swings. And maybe cops are raising more capable and self-sufficient adults, as a whole. But if you wonder what you can do, as a parent raising the next generation, there are certain steps that can be taken to avoid the plight of the overprotected.
“Anti-Coddling Measures” to Build Effective Adults
Provide plenty of unstructured time in the earlier years
The move toward uncompromising structure for children and teens, with near constant adult supervision and guidance, certainly prevents boredom and its sometimes problematic byproducts, but it also robs kids of working through and managing boredom. Children need to problem solve how to find and make friends and then occupy themselves. Sure, they might get in trouble, break some stuff, or even get hurt. They’ll live and learn. Always being around adults does promote good intergenerational social skills but also stunts the ability to act independently without approval. This has even been a problem with many new police recruits.
Encourage opportunities for failure
Yes, you heard right. Encourage opportunities for failure. Challenge kids to be daring, to step off metaphorical cliffs, to crash and burn and brush themselves off and crash again. And when they do, appreciate and applaud the effort and encourage more or it. Learning to fail builds resilience and teaches failure is rarely fatal, makes successes sweeter, and that the journey can still be fun even if the outcome disappoints.
Help them find their strengths
Learn and know their gifts, interests, and passions. It is through finding these they will taste success and build off it. Also know they might not mirror your own or what you hoped for them; maybe you were an All-Big 10 wrestler in your day, but Junior loves musical theater. Deal with it Daddy-O, and know you’re going to have to learn another language altogether, and that’s okay. Finding their niche and owning it is a massive confidence booster.
Avoid giving advice
You love your kids and when they are hurting, confused, or frozen you just want to make it better for them. Fixing the problem or telling them just what to do feels gratifying from a protective parent standpoint. We get it. And, as a LEO you have a lot of valuable insights gleaned from years on the street, or even clout to take care of troubles, so why not share it generously?
Because it won’t help in the long run.
Fixing problems or even giving advice should be rare; instead, help them work through problems by asking, “Well, what do you want to do? What do you think is the best answer? What are your options?” Help them think through the pluses and minuses of plans, to problem solve roadblocks, and to learn to live with the outcome should their plan go awry. Using a form of the Socratic Method in parenting develops critical thinking skills that will benefit far more than a quick fix.
Allow dissent and challenges to your authority
No, we’re not telling you to allow hookers and blow in Junior’s bedroom as long as it’s not a school night, or unconsequated defiance when rules or laws are broken. What we are suggesting is to encourage the questioning of the rules, your ideas and values, societal norms, and other conventions in the interest of their intellectual development (and yours) and to teach that debate is good, healthy, and necessary in any society whether it is that of the state or your household. Values arrived at through careful examination are the most solid, and being able to defend your views while valuing theirs, even when different, fosters respect and cooperation.
This is hard for cops. It requires letting go of the street-ego, demonstrating humility toward ideas you may even know are ridiculous for the sake of letting the examination take place once again by yet another kid with no sense of history. Again, that’s okay, and it teaches the respect for the beliefs and viewpoints of others that is seemingly so lacking today.
Trust your kids
Showing trust instills trust, in themselves and in each other. Cops often operate from a position of suspicion, expecting to be disappointed. At least within your own household start from a position of trust until it is violated. Most kids want to please but will rebel when they know they aren’t trusted from the start. Building strong adults means building adults who know they are worthy of trust.
Raising strong, self-sufficient adults should be the goal of every parent and society. There are some troubling trends emerging that, unless stemmed, do not bode well for any of us. Even a lot of LEOs are worried about what they see in their own kids, but everyone can take steps to turn the tide now.