About 25 years ago, when the era of irrational exuberance allowed enough disposable income for irrational anxiety, the concept of “helicopter parenting” arose. A “helicopter parent” micromanages every aspect of his child’s routine and behavior. From educational products for infants to concerned calls to professors in adulthood, helicopter parents ensure their child is on a path to success by paving it for them.
The rise of the helicopter was the product of two social shifts. The first was the comparatively booming economy of the 1990s, with low unemployment and higher disposable income. The second was the public perception of increased child endangerment—a perception, as “Free Range Kids” guru Lenore Skenazy documented, rooted in paranoia. Despite media campaigns that began in the 1980s and continue today, children are safer from crime than in prior decades. What they are not safe from are the diminishing prospects of their parents.
In America, today’s parents have inherited expectations they can no longer afford. The vigilant standards of the helicopter parents from the baby boomer generation have become defined as mainstream practice, but they require money that the average household earning $53,891 per year—and struggling to survive in an economy in its seventh year of illusory “recovery”—does not have. The result is a fearful society in which poorer parents are cast as threats to their own children. As more families struggle to stay afloat, the number of helicopter parents dwindles—but their shadow looms large.
The helicopter parent may be mocked, but she is never truly maligned. No one wants to be the parent pampering her child into a life of risk-free achievement—but no one wants their child to be, as the mantra of our era goes, “left behind.” Being a helicopter parent may be looked down upon, but being a helicoptered child has advantages: Helicopters hover but their cargo moves fast. In an economy marked by the “jobless recovery” and soaring levels of child poverty, the helicoptered child is sheltered and shepherded—and the parent relieved from social stigma and shame.
The first generation of helicopter children were raised by a new set of middle-to-upper class parents who were desperate to stay there. A great way to accomplish this was by pricing everyone else out in a way that seemed meritocratic rather than the maneuverings of a new aristocracy. The key was education, and in the 1990s, the price of higher education and its accoutrements—SAT prep classes, expensive extra-curriculars—began their exorbitant rise. Vigilant parenting and rigid student schedules became the province of the parental elite. “Permissive parenting is less attractive when the stakes are high,” economists Fabrizio Zilibotti and Matthias Doepke wrote in a 2014 study, “i.e., when adult-style behavior is especially important for children’s future success.”
The new parenting was not for everyone—many parents could not afford it. One of the most damaging legacies of helicopter parenting is the way it centered the practices of a wealthy elite as not only normal, but necessary and moral. Papers like the New York Times filled their education sections with tales of $40,000 per year high schools, preschools with waiting lists, and babysitter “patrons” who are professionals in the arts. That most Americans never lived this way was irrelevant. It was clear, given the high-earning, high-achieving progeny of the new winners, that they should.
The trend hit its peak with the 2011 publication of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, an alleged study of traditional Chinese parenting that was made possible by the author’s bountiful—and unremarked upon—wealth. Many parents may have chosen the tiger mom path—the trips abroad, the private lessons—were they not trapped in their own economic cage. Though intended as a cultural study, the book was just another reminder that you can’t spell “enrichment” without “rich.”
Tales of expensive enrichment and children snatched by predators were twin anomalies peddled as the norm throughout the 1990s and 2000s—one out of media elitism, the other out of media sensationalism. Elitism and sensationalism stoke anxiety, and parental anxiety, the media know, makes for a buyer’s market. Parents are told they are responsible not only for their children’s safety but also for their success.
With elite university admissions disproportionately weighted toward the richest U.S. families, and elite professions increasingly requiring expensive credentials and unpaid labor, huge numbers of American kids are being shunted onto a lower track, their potential capped by the circumstances of their birth. This has always been the case in the U.S., but the new normal works to further restrict and refine the group at the top. Helicopter parenting is opportunity-hoarding repackaged as parental devotion.
And so we arrive at the summer of 2014, when several mothers were arrested for “abandoning” their children while trying to procure resources to survive. In Florida, Ashley Richardson was arrested for leaving her kids at a park while she went to a food bank. In South Carolina, Debra Harrell was arrested for leaving her 9-year-old at the park while she worked at McDonalds. Both mothers are black, placing them outside the distorted media ideal of the white upper-class hovering mother, that fringe figure now portrayed as the gold standard.
The racial overtones of Richardson and Harrell’s demonization were undeniable. But the two mothers are far more like the typical American parent than commonly portrayed. The average mother is drowning as the cost of raising a child soars while wages stagnate or decrease. Since 2008, the cost of both childbirth and daycare has skyrocketed while U.S. median income collapsed. Daycare is now an average $11,666 a year, with the cost in some states as high as $19,000. The exorbitant trappings of an “enriched” childhood—activities, travel, tutoring—are out of bounds for most parents, who struggle to cover the basics.
People who complain about the spoiled Millennial generation—themselves the alleged product of helicopter parenting—forget how old they are. Many Millennials are now raising children themselves, while carrying enormous college debt burdens and scrambling with low-paying, contingent jobs. The standards erected by their prosperous progenitors are unsustainable. The helicopter parent, always more of a mythological standard than a familiar figure, has crashed.
A good parent is said to “provide” for children. It is no longer enough to simply love them. Love is the sidebar to achievement, an insufficient defense against an unyielding future. That is the cruelest legacy of the helicopter parent, one that will endure long after the smoke has cleared.