Loosening the Apron Strings

Helicopter parenting. Right. We know what it is. Hovering. Over-protecting. It’s a phenomenon dealing with little kids, right?

Apparently not. At least, depending on who you talk to. Perhaps some would consider me a helicopter mother. Others? They would call me “engaged.”

Times are certainly different than 30 years ago. Families are different. Surely economic pressures have a hand in the way we are raising our children. Comparisons to generations gone by? Are they relevant? Are they inevitable?

21st century parenting

With violence in schools, worries over homes and jobs, single parent guilt, gargantuan price tags on education and competition in every arena, is it any wonder that parents hover over their children? Or that we pass along our stress, whether we wish to or not? Our performance anxieties? Our anxiety in general?

Do we unwittingly take on so much for our kids that we’re robbing them of necessary development? Of lessons in coping?

When the New York Times ran commentary on the impact of helicopter parenting on college freshmen, I paid attention.

According to the Times,

… college administrators are struggling to keep up with what their students need. Are social, academic and financial pressures on freshmen becoming more intense? Have freshmen changed? Does the fact that many students are used to “helicopter” parents monitoring and guiding all of their activities affect the transition to college?

First experiences of independence

Linda Bips, psychologist, assistant professor at Muhlenberg College, and the author of “Parenting College Freshmen: Consulting for Adulthood,” writes of the lack of coping strategies she observes in college students, and notes:

The number of students who arrive at college already medicated for unwanted emotions has increased dramatically in the past 10 years. We, as a society, don’t want to “feel” anything unpleasant and we certainly don’t want our children to “suffer.”

Barbara Hofer, also a psychology professor (at Middlebury) and parenting author, mentions the added requirement of staying in contact with parents and friends, for moral support, and much more.

The explosion of means for staying connected – cellphones, texting, email, Skype, Facebook – has also created its own set of pressures. Students have an unprecedented number of ways to stay in contact with others and this can sometimes become a time-consuming task. No longer do college students have just the Sunday night call from parents nor do they wait till Thanksgiving to check in with high school friends.

Where does it start? Where does it end?

Does adolescence in fact start sooner now than in previous generations? Certainly, watching my own children and their friends over the years, I think so. And does it last longer? Too long? Are college administrators and faculty forced to finish raising our kids because we as parents are perpetuating dependence in ways we don’t realize?

I think about my sons – both teens – one in college now, and the other, a senior in high school. They couldn’t be more different. They stay in touch via cell phones, and thank goodness.  As a single parent, juggling schedules can be a logistical headache and a half.

My elder calls from college every three or four weeks, mostly to chat. Occasionally we connect on Skype – for a birthday, or if he has particularly good news to share. When my younger was away last summer, he also called every few weeks. Or when he needed something. I consider these communications appropriate, and valuable.

More than that? It’s up to them, though for my younger I insist on knowing his whereabouts more or less. Teens and cars? Scary stuff. And I’ve loosened the apron strings as I’ve seen him step up to the plate with increasing confidence, in every area of his life.

Teaching kids life skills: permission to succeed, the hard way

As parents, do we ever feel that we’ve done enough? Is that one of our problems?

We understand intellectually that our kids must make their own mistakes. That missteps and hardships build character and offer critical life lessons. Still, we want to reduce their risks, while hoping to lead by example – with accountability, with responsibility, with respectful communication. Sometimes, just by showing up. But have we forgotten to teach independence, out of fear?

Is it really about giving our sons and daughters permission to fail, or permission to succeed – the hard way – as many of us have had to do?

  • Where is the happy medium in terms of guidance and independence?
  • When do we, as parents, start loosening the apron strings?
  • How much is a matter of the individual child and circumstances?

© D A Wolf



  1. says

    When I was 17 yo, and I can tell you that my parents were the worst. I can’t be late when I come back from school. They call every 5 min to make sure that I’m coming back with my 2 sisters. I dont even go out during weekends, this is why I’ve created a virtual “life” online because I terribly lack of confidence and I think that I’m afraid of places packed with people. It’s sometimes hard to initiate contact with people because I’m too shy, maybe due to some low esteem of myself. I can’t go on like this, I blame my parents cause they never let me be, or defend myself. Its hard for me to make my voice heard. I think I became that sad person because of my parents being over-protective.

  2. says

    I was stunned when I taught college composition; the number of parents who expect college teachers to inform them about student performance is mind-boggling. Umm…it’s college! They’re supposed to sink or swim on their own steam, aren’t they? I just didn’t get it.

  3. says

    When my oldest daughter was going off to college and I was trying desperately to let go, another mom told me, “While they are at home and before they go off to college, allow them to make decisions like staying out late on a school night, spending money on something expensive and unnecessary, or dating a guy who isn’t worthy. Then when there are consequences for these decisions they can deal with them (with you if they choose to ask) while they are under your roof. If you don’t allow this and they go off to college, then they go crazy with the “freedom,” make bad decisions and have no one to guide them.

  4. says

    Thought-provoking! It’s been interesting watching my eldest daughter grow from the super-argumentative four-year-old into a skeptical seven-year-old who, when she didn’t like my response to a question about homework, accused me of never having attended third grade. Now she is a freshman in college. Every now and then, after she’s resisted listening to my advice, she realizes later that I might have been a teensy bit correct and thanks me.

    It has been challenging to adapt my parenting skills as she has matured. The way you parent a toddler, preschooler and elementary-schooler is quite different than the way you must parent a teenager. When they hit eighteen, it changes again. The key for me has been to evolve from telling them what to do as young ones to the point where we are now, when she calls/texts/skypes to run “stuff” by me. I ask questions and offer other aspects for her to consider in her decision-making process. I’m here for her as comfort, as a sounding board, to act as a mirror so she can find herself. It’s different from rushing in to save her. Helicopter? No. Safety net? Perhaps…

    • BigLittleWolf says

      “The way you parent a toddler, preschooler and elementary-schooler is quite different than the way you must parent a teenager.” Boy, do I hear you, Andrea! And I love this – “I’m here to … act as a mirror so she can find herself.” Beautifully said.

  5. says

    I deeply appreciate the distinction you make between helicopter parenting and engaged parenting. I’d prefer the kinder label for myself. I don’t swoop in to rescue, but I do notice when my kids falter. I stay on the fringe so that, if they need advice or merely comfort I am there. I think this is kind and I find that my children, more often than not, would rather solve their own problems, they simply want to know that I SEE them. That is all the validation they need.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I think it’s a distinction worth making. There are differences, and I suspect you navigate them as well. Validation, yes.

  6. says

    My parents let me make some pretty big decisions all on my own. Which high school to go to (both options were free), which college to attend. And I managed smaller things too – laundry (starting around 10) and homework, extracurriculars. They were there if I asked for for guidance, but never with ready answers. Their trust (real trust) and faith in me made me very careful to make good decisions.

  7. says

    I get so frustrated when I hear teachers complain about parents either being too absent or too “helicopter” without allowing for the possibility that most of us are trying to find that happy medium. The best book I read on this (for me) was Parent Effectiveness Training. You’re supposed to balance it out by figuring out what’s their problem, what’s your problem, what affects both of you, and only deal with those problems that affect you (either jointly or individually). When they come to you with their problems, engage in Active Listening, and let them figure out their own answers by talking out all the possible consequences.

  8. says

    Fascinating topic. And one that I’ve seen played out at a distance as the partner of a college professor. I have been floored by the behavior of the two types of kids who seem to be the products of parents who dwell too long in rescue mode.

    On the one hand is the needy freshman who can’t seem to do much for himself. On the other is the rebellious one who sees her new-found freedom as an invitation to engage in an extreme version of every act that had been proscribed by her parents.

    And then, of course, there’s the vast majority in the middle – and it is that group that leads me to believe that most of us parents (and especially parents of teens) are doing just fine. Sure, our kids will make mistakes when they’re out from under our roofs. But most of them will be able to prevent and correct appropriately and without much outside help.

  9. says

    This is interesting to me because once I got to college my parents were very hands off. I talked to them a couple of times a week, but they always let me initiate contact. My mom mailed letters (actual letters) every couple of weeks and I would write to her via e-mail. It worked for us.

    What makes me the saddest about all of this is the continued connection to high school friends. Many kids have a great time in HS and will be happy to continue those friendships. Others, though, are eager to sever those ties and move on. Facebook heaves a lot of pressure onto maintaining contacts that you may not want to keep.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You raise such an intriguing issue, Gale. The need for teens to get away from some of their high school “friends” and start anew. It can be difficult enough without trailing connections, but oh-so-much-harder with FB reminding you of that old self, and former circle of playmates!

  10. says

    I was a pretty self-sufficient young adult, but I met some folks during college and grad school that made me doubt the future of the human race. A 23 year old who called sweeping “brooming” and an 18 year old who cried when given a middling grade on a research paper, etc. It seemed ridiculous.

    Now I see how modern family life and parenting can lead to those outcomes. Hire a housekeeper and your child may never encounter a broom. Refuse to allow your child to fail (and recover) and he won’t see the value and potential in a “bad” grade.

    I try to keep the balance. Protect the kids from what they are too young to understand and support them in everything else, including re-framing chores in a positive light. This is why my toddler has her own set of chores and my son gets excited when he gets to wash his own clothes.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      “Re-framing” chores in a positive light. What a good way to put it, Kelly. How else other than hard work as part of a (family) team will kids learn? Including that it feels good to accomplish things – even tedious (necessary) tasks?

  11. says

    Yes, yes. As others have commented, the distinction is so important: an engaged parent is not the same as a helicopter parent. As with so many things in life, there is a fine line between good involvement and going too far. My younger brother is in college – a sophomore now – and it’s been interesting to watch how his relationships with our parents, with me, with our sister have matured. The years in college are *so important* – the most important to evolving and getting to know yourself – you need a healthy distance from your parents, with the reassurance that they are there to help you when you really need it.

  12. says

    I think I had helicopter parents before it was fashionable — and I can say that they nurtured my fear of failure all too well. I hated the mandatory Sunday night phone call home because a good part of it was spent quizzing me on what activities/classes I had/had not joined (wasn’t that supposed to be my choice?).

    I know, it was all because they loved me. SIGH.

  13. says

    There is a fine line (but distinction between) engaged parenting and helicopter parenting. It is good to be involved in your children’s lives and education, but they do need to be allowed the space to exercise some decision making…sink or swim.

  14. says

    BLW, my parents were always so overprotective and very engaged parents when my sister and I were growing up. They were the worst case scenario parents and therefore, we didn’t have as much freedom as some of our friends. Although their behavior stemmed out of love, I think some of those after effects have carried over to my adulthood, my hesitation in taking certain risks, for fear that it won’t work out. I try not to do that with my own daughter because I know we can’t always protect and children have to learn the hard lessons in life.

  15. says

    The debate on parenting seems to inevitably focus on what different experts suggest that parents do or do not do, and rarely does it offer much on HOW to be truly happy, contained, confident, balanced and the like so that we might actually offer kids a viable model to emulate. Nervous medicated parents who cannot manage their own feelings may be much more to the point than nervous medicated children. Discussion as you offer, BLW, does more to band us together and create feelings of community and acceptance and so I thank you for that (and suggest we stay aware of the messages on parenting that bombard us: are they stirring our fears in order to sell us “the answer?”)

    I wonder if “be a mensch, do your best, try not to judge other people and try to imagine that we’re all actually in this together” wouldn’t be sufficient?

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I would certainly agree that “be a mensch, do your best, and try not to judge (especially that)” would be a great start – and cover a lot of territory. I find the judgment of the so-called experts (lumping all kids together, without the nuances of individual circumstances) to be part of the problem, not the solution.

      And thank you for your good words, Bruce.

  16. says

    “Are college administrators and faculty forced to finish raising our kids because we as parents are perpetuating dependence in ways we don’t realize?” I just had this conversation with a friend who is a professor at a local 4-year college. She told me how many students she has that actually made it into Harvard or other Ivy League institutions only to fail out because they didn’t have their parents there managing their time. They couldn’t manage to do it on their own.

    We have been in this “over-parenting” mindset for quite some time and the effects seem to be showing. I think parents are forgetting that the end goal is to raise an adult who can take care of themselves. I think there are a lot of varied reasons for this over-parenting, none of which justify the unprepared, inadequate kids they are leaving behind. I’m not sure why, but this issue surfaces a lot of negative emotion for me.

    One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to let your child fail. They may experience hurt, frustration and a host of other issues – but I say “may” because maybe failing is exactly what they needed and it results in a person victory for them on a different level.

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