The rise of the alpha parent

By Margaret M. Treadwell

“Parenthood is forever. Plan it.” reads my favorite T-shirt, which over the years has humbled me as I’ve stumbled, muddled through and hopefully learned from my mistakes as a mother. With school beginning, I use that message to ask, “How do you want to position yourself this fall to foster growth and independence in your children? How might you stay connected while loosening the reins for the rest of the school year?” These are lifelong questions for parents and grandparents who wish to strike a balance between being overly involved and not involved enough.

While pondering these questions, I came across several recent studies concerning “helicopter parents,” a term which first appeared in the 1990s to describe a new category of 40-something Baby Boomers who are intensely involved in their children’s development, hovering over every aspect of their education and recreation and even rising as far as the graduate job market to intervene on behalf of their young adults. Some even bail out their “children” from marriages by providing finances and childhood bedrooms readied for a return home.

I have heard most about this phenomenon from teachers, principals and college deans, who cite the lack of responsibility students take for themselves when they are constantly calling home on cell phones – surely the longest “cordless” umbilical cord in history. These educators insist that children are not spoiled by material wealth, but rather by parents who arrange for their offspring to never experience failure or suffer the consequences of their actions.

In a 2007 study, the National Survey of Student Engagement polled 313,000 college students at 610 schools and found that seven out of 10 students communicated “very often” with a parent (mothers were the most frequently contacted), and 13 percent of first year students and 8 percent of seniors reported frequent intervention by a parent or guardian. The study found that college students who reported high levels of contact with parents and guardians, and whose parents frequently intervened on their behalf, were more satisfied with their education and reported deeper learning activities than students with less-involved parents. Meanwhile, professors worry about the blurring of the boundaries between childhood and adulthood and the gradual ‘infantilisation’ of society with the appearance of ‘kidults’ or ‘adultescents.’ The dilemma? Students welcome the involvement of their alpha parents!

The phenomenon also has garnered attention in Great Britain. In a Jan. 3, 2008 article in the Guardian, Paul Redmond, head of careers at the University of Liverpool, describes the five most common kinds of helicopter parents:

* The agent who operates like a footballer’s agent – fixing deals, arranging contracts and smoothing out local difficulties.

* The banker who is unique in the financial services world for never seeing loans repaid,

asking few, if any, questions, expecting no collateral and being psychologically inclined to say “yes” no matter how illogical or poorly articulated the request.

* The white knight who appears at short notice to resolve awkward situations, then silently disappears once intervention is accomplished.

* The bodyguard who protects the client from a range of embarrassing social situations such as canceling appointments, constructing elaborate excuses, doubling up as chauffeur and personal assistant.

* The black hawk who is dreaded by teachers for going to any length – legal or illegal – to give their offspring a positional advantage over any competition.

All of us want the best for our children and perhaps fall somewhere along this continuum from time to time, especially as the cost of college increases. James Boyle, president of College Parents of America says, “The vast majority of parents just want to be better consumers and support their child’s education.” But what are we creating with our singularity of focus on academic, athletic or social success, rather than thinking about the whole, integrated person?

Happy children are those who grow up to take responsibility for their own destiny and being, which makes for productive, fulfilled human beings giving back to the world. This requires independence, self-motivation, resiliency, reliability and an ability to make decisions and take stands for themselves. What would it take for helicopter parents to draw on their faith and trust in God, remembering that our children are His children?

Prayer for Young Persons

God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world; Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 829.

Margaret M. (“Peggy”) Treadwell, LCSW -C, has been active in the fields of education and counseling for thirty-five years. Following a long association with Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, during which she served on his faculty, she co-edited and helped posthumously publish his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

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