GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - By now most people have heard of “helicopter parenting," the slang term for parents virtually hovering or overseeing anything and everything their child does, whether it’s playing with a friend, doing their homework or just their day-to-day interaction with others.
Counselors are now dealing with a new term that takes “helicopter parenting” to the next level. It’s called “Lawnmower parenting,” says Tracy Thompson, Licensed Professional Counselor with The Fountain Hill Center for Counseling and Consultation in Grand Rapids.
“It’s trying to clean-up all of the mistakes that are possible by going ahead of our kids and not letting them feel discomfort,” says Thompson, who adds it’s fear-based. “It’s fear that something terrible is going to happen to our kids and we're not going to have control over it. But the truth is, they need to experience that kind of responsibility.”
No one knows for sure, but some believe the fear-based changes began in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s, when missing children started appearing on milk cartons and television programs, giving parents a false sense of danger. In fact, it has gotten so bad, that the state of Utah has a new law to prevent this trend of “overparenting”.
Thompson, a mother of two children and nearly decade-long counselor, says she and her fellow counselors are seeing an uptick in what many have termed the “quarter-life crisis”.
“Lots of anxiety, lots of depression," says Thompson. "So I’m seeing a lot, for a lack of a better term, meltdowns. I just don’t know how to navigate all that is in my lap.”
Thompson says when she sits down with kids and their families, often the kids don’t like what they hear.
“Kids always hate me when I see them in a meeting," says Thompson. "I tell them, your 10-year-old should be able to wake themselves up, get dressed, their teeth brushed, and that’s going to give them some responsibility and belonging in this family. Kids are desperate for belonging and significance, and how do they find that? Through contributions to the family and knowing their role.”
Because of the “lawnmower parenting," Thompson explains that for kids who are not being forced to complete these task on their own or are not failing early in life, the small failures later that should be small, turn into much bigger issues.
“Families are like little test tubes, where we get to let our kids experience disappointment and failure and not have their world crumble around them," explains Thompson. "Our kids can handle disappointment. In fact, it’s their right to experience disappointment. If we don’t let them experience disappointment about being late for a test and showing up not prepared, how are they ever going to navigate being late for some assignment at their job?"
Thompson says there are many habits that parents practice that contribute to this dilemma later in life, and many may not even realize it. Things like:
- Asking for a specific teacher
- Rescuing them from tough encounters with a friend or a teacher
- Making their beds and cleaning their room
- Avoiding disappointment like losing a sporting event or not getting them donuts a grandparent had promised
"You know, they need to be able to handle this disappointment. I’m not going to take them for donuts. When we get in the habit of never letting our kids feel pain, they’re absolutely going to be really weak and they’re not going to be able to handle anything," says Thompson.
Thompson also advises letting kids do some of the simple things again that were common back in the 60’s and 70’s like walking to school if they live close enough.
“The first time my kindergartner walked to school, I was a wreck. I went upstairs so I could watch him the entire way there, but he felt so courageous and confident, and I would not rob him of that. Your kids want more responsibility. If you can tap into that, inspire and empower them to do more, they’re going to do better down the road,” Thompson said.
Letting kids “free play” is also a big help in their growing up strong, and not constantly telling them how special they are.
“My parent tells me I’m special all the time when obviously Joey down the street hits a home run every single time, but I’m not that special if I’m striking out every time. It loses meaning. Kids know it’s not true,” Thompson adds.
The state of Utah has just passed legislation called the “Free Range Parenting Law," believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. The law lessens the chance of a parent being charged with “child neglect” when they chose to let their kids do more on their own. It exempts from the definition of “child neglect” various activities children can do without supervision. If a child’s basic needs are met and the child is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid unreasonable risk of harm, it allows them to engage in independent activities.