Are you Helicopter Parenting or Helping? 7 Ways to Tell

How to know if you are helping or hurting when you step in to help your child

Checking kids' texts is helping, not helicopter parenting. Getty Images

No doubt you've heard the tales about extreme helicopter parenting: parents of school-age kids doing their homework assignments for them, college students whose parents constantly call or text to see how each test went or to ask about every tiny detail of their day; twenty-somethings whose mom or dad contact their employer to lobby on behalf of their child; and so on. Clearly, these are examples of parenting run amok.

But for many parents, things can get a bit more gray when it comes to knowing what's over-parenting and what isn't.

For starters, supporting, protecting, and assisting our children is a good thing; that's what we are supposed to do as parents. In all the criticisms I've read about helicopter parenting, I rarely see anyone acknowledge that it can sometimes be tough for parents to tell if we're doing enough or doing too much for our kids. In wanting to help our kids, we can easily veer a little too much into over-parenting, and may need to steer back on track to guide or assist our children without helicoptering. Here are some ways to tell when you're doing too much for your child, and how you can help instead of helicopter.

1. Schoolwork, chores, and developmental milestones

You see your child struggling with a problem, like finishing his homework, sweeping the floor properly, or tying his shoelaces.

Helicopter parenting: You try to demonstrate how to do something once or twice and then step in and do it for your child. The problem with this approach is that kids who have the work done for them won't learn how to solve the problem or develop strategies for doing it better and faster the next time.

And you definitely don't want a child who still can't tie his own shoes at the age of 10.

Helping: Give your child some helpful tips and tools (such as good homework habits) and step back to allow him to try and see what works for him. Will he make mistakes 20, 30, or more times before he gets it right? Probably. But he will learn how to do it himself eventually, and that's what's important. Not letting him try to get it right and fail before he succeeds robs him of the chance to feel proud of his accomplishment at doing something by himself.

As for chores, the messy floor now will be a well-swept floor as your child gets older and his dexterity and coordination improve. And woe to the parents who don't give kids any chores; do you really want to constantly pick up and clean up after a messy teenager who never pitches in?

2. Walking alone, doing more without adult supervision

Your child is reaching an age of more independence, where some of her friends are doing things like walking to school without parents, staying home alone for a few hours, going to the public restroom by themselves, and more.

Helicopter parenting: Your child isn't allowed to go anywhere without you and is constantly warned about the dangers of strangers.

Helping: When it comes to safety, an abundance of caution is not a bad thing. The fact is, in trying to encourage independence and NOT be a helicopter parent, we can inadvertently fail to protect or monitor our kids sufficiently. But, it's also important to encourage kids to be independent, and not to be constantly fearful.

The best approach is to take each situation on a case-by-case basis. If your 9-year-old child will be walking a few blocks with friends during the day and is going to text you when she gets to her destination, it's probably safe. Teach her basic rules of safety around people she doesn't know (and those she does) and how to stay safe in the street, particularly around vehicles like school buses.

But if a mom is at a large mall or stadium where there are lots of people and she doesn't feel comfortable letting her 6-year-old son go to the men's room by himself, there's no need to feel guilty about it. You won't be slowing your child's independence, and any number of safety experts will agree that caution is fine in situations like these. (Take him to the ladies' room or find a family bathroom.)

As for danger from strangers, it's important to teach kids how to stay safe, empower them, and put things in perspective. Danger isn't always from strangers, and knowing what to do can help keep them safe.

3. Nutrition and health

As kids get older, they express more preferences for their own snacks, meals, physical activities, and other nutrition and health choices.

Helicopter parenting: You decide every single thing your child drinks and eats, and set up every physical activity.

Helping: Encouraging healthy snacks by making fresh fruits and vegetables available and not buying junk food and soda is great. Dictating every single choice your child makes, like not letting him have even a cookie every once in a while, is not. As for exercise, not every single minute has to be scheduled and planned. Take your child to the park and let him decide if he wants to climb a tree, ride his bike, or just run around with his friends.

4. Friendships and other social relationships

Your child is making friends at school and interacting more with classmates, teachers, coaches, and other people outside his immediate family.

Helicopter parenting: You choose all your child's friends and set up every play date, after thoroughly checking out the potential playmate. You supervise every moment of the play date, and decide what kids will do when.

Helping: Let your child decide who she wants to hang out with. Sure, you can help your child make friends, especially if she's very shy and isn't likely to reach out to other kids. But selecting friends for her, especially if she isn't interested, is helicopter parenting. And sitting in on those play dates is a huge no-no, unless the kids specifically ask you to play a game with them or help them with something.

That said, it's important to meet the family of a child your kid is spending a lot of time with, and for safety reasons, it's essential that you ask questions before your child goes to her friend's house for a play date. And keeping an eye or ear on the kids while they play in another room is good supervision without interference.

5. Handling conflicts and problems with peers, siblings, or teachers

School-age kids may run into a problem with a classmate, a teacher, or someone else in their lives.

Helicopter parenting: You step in at the first sign of a fight or a problem. You email your child's teacher because she corrected your child's behavior once, or contact the parents of a classmate who called your child a name. When your kids fight, you intervene immediately.

Helping: In this age of bullying, it's important to keep close tabs on what's going on at school, especially if your child feels threatened, intimidated, or harassed in any way. (In these cases, it's definitely okay to intervene.) That said, kids need to learn how to handle their own problems to some extent. Not only that, conflicts can sometimes dissolve away into nothing in a day or two, and a child's perception of a fight or problem--such as thinking a teacher was mad at him--may not be as bad as he perceived it be.

Keep an eye on the situation, ask your child and his teacher questions, and step in only when you think the problem won't be resolved without your help or your child may be harmed. Break up a fight between siblings if they hurt each other physically or resort to harsh name-calling, but otherwise, give them a chance to sort things out themselves.

6. Texting, going online

Kids today are texting, social networking through Instagram, and communicating electronically more than any other generation before.

Helicopter parenting: You comment on all or most of the posts your child puts up and insert yourself into their discussions. You advise your child about what to post or what to say to friends, even when she doesn't ask for your advice.

Helping: Think of yourself as behind-the-scenes support, not someone who should be visible. Do not, under any circumstances, insert yourself into your child's posts or communications with her friends.

At the same time, you need to keep tabs on what your child is seeing and doing. When it comes to online communication, giving your child privacy is not a good idea. With bullying and cyberbullying an all-too-real and scary problem in kids' lives today, not knowing what messages your child is exchanging and with whom is not respectful--it's risky. Read about how to keep kids kids safe on social media and on the internet.

7. Choosing clothes, extracurricular activities

As kids enter kindergarten and elementary school, they may want to choose their clothes and activities.

Helicopter parenting: You dictate what your child wears and sign him up for activities you think are best for him, even if he isn't interested in them.

Helping: School-age kids need to find their own style, preferences, and interests. Restricting what he wears or does and making it fit to what you think it should be doesn't allow your child to develop his own tastes and talents. Some guidance is good--encouraging your child to take some kind of music lessons, for example--but making him do something that he isn't really interested in--say, playing the piano--may backfire (he could decide he hates music). And putting time and energy into fighting over a hated activity could prevent him from figuring out what he does like and is good at, such as playing soccer, for instance.

As for clothes or other style-related preferences, as long as your child isn't insisting on shorts in sub-zero weather or begging you to buy her a midriff-bearing tiny top, give him or her room to choose.

Some other tips to keep in mind:

Each child is different. Some kids will want to be more independent at an earlier age, while others may wanna hang back as long as possible. Take their cues and let them go at their own pace, stepping in only when it's an issue of safety (a 5-year-old wants to cross busy streets by himself) or your child is lagging way behind his peers (A 10-year-old wants you to handle all his problems for him). And try not to compare your child to someone else. Just because her older sibling or cousins did things by themselves at an early age, it doesn't mean she needs to go at the same pace.

Don't beat yourself up. Parenting mistakes happen. If you sense that you are steering too far into over-parenting territory, look at ways you can give your child more independence.

Don't risk your child's health and safety because you are afraid of being a helicopter parent. Trust your gut, consider possible--but real--risks, and err on the side of caution when it comes to situations that pose real dangers.

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