Helicopter Parenting and Societal Decline

I was struck by this video at the Atlantic magazine, narrated by Julie Lythcott-Haims. Ms. Lythcott-Haims was the former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University.

The most striking passage from the video was this:

We will have among us a young adult population that doesn’t know how to “#adult”. It becomes a community problem; it becomes a crisis in leadership. You have ask — “Well, who’s going to run the schools? Who’s going to run our non-profits? Who’s going to run the government? Who’s going to lead our families?”

Let’s unpack this statement by first examining the demographic that this phenomenon most pertains to: the children of the professional class.

Children of the Professional Class

Photo credit: Brooke Cagle

I’m going to examine a subset of the Millennial Generation (born between 1982–2004) which I shall call the Children of the Professional Class (“CPCs”). They are Millennials born into upper middle class families where one or both parents are highly educated, working professionals.

Aside from their social class, another common denominator among CPCs is that they grew up in loving households and seemingly had all of their material and emotional needs attended to by their parents. Yet despite all of this, something seemed to be missing in their lives. Here is an excerpt from an article in the Atlantic called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” by the psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb that describes this dilemma (emphases are mine):

Imagine a bright, attractive 20-something woman with strong friendships, a close family, and a deep sense of emptiness. She had come in, she told me, because she was “just not happy.” And what was so upsetting, she continued, was that she felt she had nothing to be unhappy about. She reported that she had “awesome” parents, two fabulous siblings, supportive friends, an excellent education, a cool job, good health, and a nice apartment. She had no family history of depression or anxiety. So why did she have trouble sleeping at night? Why was she so indecisive, afraid of making a mistake, unable to trust her instincts and stick to her choices? Why did she feel “less amazing” than her parents had always told her she was? Why did she feel “like there’s this hole inside” her? Why did she describe herself as feeling “adrift”?

I was stumped. Where was the distracted father? The critical mother? Where were the abandoning, devaluing, or chaotic caregivers in her life?

As I tried to make sense of this, something surprising began happening: I started getting more patients like her. Sitting on my couch were other adults in their 20s or early 30s who reported that they, too, suffered from depression and anxiety, had difficulty choosing or committing to a satisfying career path, struggled with relationships, and just generally felt a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose — yet they had little to quibble with about Mom or Dad.

Instead, these patients talked about how much they “adored” their parents. Many called their parents their “best friends in the whole world,” and they’d say things like “My parents are always there for me.” Sometimes these same parents would even be funding their psychotherapy (not to mention their rent and car insurance), which left my patients feeling both guilty and utterly confused. After all, their biggest complaint was that they had nothing to complain about!

At first, I’ll admit, I was skeptical of their reports. Childhoods generally aren’t perfect — and if theirs had been, why would these people feel so lost and unsure of themselves? It went against everything I’d learned in my training.

But after working with these patients over time, I came to believe that no florid denial or distortion was going on. They truly did seem to have caring and loving parents, parents who gave them the freedom to “find themselves” and the encouragement to do anything they wanted in life. Parents who had driven carpools, and helped with homework each night, and intervened when there was a bully at school or a birthday invitation not received, and had gotten them tutors when they struggled in math, and music lessons when they expressed an interest in guitar (but let them quit when they lost that interest), and talked through their feelings when they broke the rules, instead of punishing them (“logical consequences” always stood in for punishment). In short, these were parents who had always been “attuned,” as we therapists like to say, and had made sure to guide my patients through any and all trials and tribulations of childhood. As an overwhelmed parent myself, I’d sit in session and secretly wonder how these fabulous parents had done it all.

Until, one day, another question occurred to me: Was it possible these parents had done too much?

Ms. Gottlieb’s observations of this phenomenon are not unique. For example, a 2011 study by sociologists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found a correlation in college-student questionnaires between helicopter parenting and medication for anxiety or depression.

We’re going to return to Ms. Gottlieb’s observations in a moment. But as part of my inquiry into this puzzle, I’m going to review a famous and widely known theory in psychology called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Here’s what is looks like:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory of human developmental psychology which focuses on describing the stages of growth in humans. Maslow used the terms “physiological”, “safety”, “belonging and love”, “esteem”, and “self-actualization” to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.

In reference the the Atlantic excerpt, if Ms. Gottlieb’s patients are indicative of CPCs in general, then it’s clear that their parents have been successful in tending to the first four needs of the Maslowian hierarchy. However, what their parents could not provide to CPCs was Self-Actualization.

What is Self-Actualization? Maslow stated that human motivation is based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth. Self-actualized people are those who are fulfilled and doing all they are capable of. I have summarized its characteristics in Table 2 below along with related media excerpts demonstrating how CPCs compare with the ideal:

As you can see, CPCs clearly fall short of the Self-Actualized ideal. But why is this? And how does one become self-actualized? The following excerpt suggests that self-actualization only occurs after going through hardships and setbacks in life (emphases are mine).

It is clear that the self-actualized person might be in danger of dying, but nevertheless may find meaning in life….

Mahatma Gandhi, Viktor Frankl, and Nelson Mandela may serve as examples of people who each personify a reality self-actualization. At risk of his life, Mahatma Gandhi utilized civil disobedience for purposes of freedom, Viktor Frankl was a holocaust survivor who never relinquished his grasp of life’s meaning, and Nelson Mandela maintained an attitude of meaning in life even while he was imprisoned. The safety needs of these individuals may have been threatened in these particular life circumstances, but it may be understood that many people whose safety needs are compromised may be cognizant of being values. They may find life to be meaningful explicitly because of situations of danger to their lives, situations represented by the dichotomy of life and death, in particular.

The Theory of Self-Actualization from Psychology Today, August 13, 2013

My own personal take on Self-Actualization can be summed up as follows:

You can’t appreciate a steak until you’ve eaten a shit sandwich

Until an individual has gone through personal hardships and come out on the other side, she’ll never know the joy of realizing the inner reserves of strength and determination she never even knew existed. These are the experiences that build strength of character. These are the experiences that equip her to face the world “as it is”.

What well-intentioned helicopter parenting does is to protect children from the hardships of life. Ergo, it prevents them from attaining the Self-Actualization stage of their psychological development which equips them with the characteristics of independence and leadership. As we’ll see in the following section, this can have harmful consequences on a society.

The Three Generation Theory

Photo credit: Tobin Rogers

One of the most well known observations about inter-generational wealth is the three generation phenomenon. It’s commonly referred to as the “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. The adage is well known throughout the world, with the Italians saying:“from the cowshed to the stars and back to the cowshed” and the Chinese saying “wealth never survives three generations”, with many more versions in between.

In summary, the theory is as follows:

  1. The first generation starts off with very little and has the drive and work ethic to build wealth. I’ll call this the “Ascendancy” phase.
  2. The second generation, having learned lessons passed down from their parents, maintain or even increase the family wealth. I’ll call this the “Peak” phase.
  3. The third generation, having been raised in wealth, are far removed from the work ethic and drive of the people who made it for them. They have never known deprivation and as a result, they squander the family’s wealth. The family’s fortunes are back where they were at the beginning of this three cycle process. I’ll call this the “Decline” phase.

I contend that this phenomenon exists at the macro level. That is — the rise and fall of entire societies follows a similar pattern. Let’s use the United States as an example.

Ascendancy: The Greatest Generation (born 1910–1924)

Photo credit: Paulette Wooten

They lived through the Great Depression and dusted themselves off in time to enter the Second World War to fight Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. After prevailing against the Axis Powers, American soldiers returned home to the United States and under the G.I. Bill, took advantage of the opportunities to further their education by attending college or undertaking vocational training. A trained and educated young workforce led to the subsequent economic boom in the United States from the 1950s to the early 1970s and made the United States the world’s preeminent economic and military superpower.

Peak: The Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964)

Photo credit: Francis Farago

They are the children of the Greatest Generation and reaped the benefits of their parents’ hard work in rebuilding the United States after WWII. They were the generation that initially rebelled against their parents during the 1960s and 1970s, but steadily became more conservative from the 1980s onward and made decisions that set the stage for America’s decline as an economic and military superpower. They also became the wealthiest generation in American history and have used that wealth to ensure that their children, the Millennials, would be able to grow up with comfort and opportunity.

Decline: The Millennial Generation (born 1982–2004)

Photo credit: Alice Donavan Rouse

The children of the Boomers, Millennials were told by their parents when growing up how awesome they were. They were also never allowed to fail and try again which prevented them from developing the mental fortitude to face life’s many obstacles.

In light of this, the earliest of the Millennials who graduated college and entered into the workforce in 2008 were ill-equipped to deal with the changed economic landscape that resulted from the Financial Crisis which started that year. Rather, they were encouraged by their parents to “follow their passion” and find a job that provides happiness and fulfillment first and a decent income second. Now, that philosophy has come back to haunt Boomers. In fact, Millennial parents report receiving approximately $11,000 annually from their Boomers parents through support such as childcare, bills, debt, vacations and household help.

Ironically, since the onset of the Great Recession, parents of younger Millennials have doubled down on their helicopter parenting efforts in order to give their children every advantage in the post-2008 era, which unbeknownst to them, appears to be making things even worse.

For example, a 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association reported a 16 percent increase in mental-health visits since 2000 and a significant increase in crisis response over the past five years. According to recent studies, 44 percent of college students experienced symptoms of depression, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among college students.

Consider that these young people will be tomorrow’s leaders. That’s a scary thought. It’s not an exaggeration to state that if helicopter parenting continues to produce future generations of messed up young adults, this will contribute to America’s decline.


Photo credit: RawPixel.com

If you’re a parent of a young child or a prospective parent and serious about avoiding the hazards of over parenting, I strongly recommend that you take the time to watch the following videos as a jump-off point for your own research.

The Trophy Kids

The Atlantic’s Lori Gottlieb speaks to parenting expert Wendy Mogel about the ways well-meaning parents can ruin their children.

Helicopter Parenting May Underprepare Your Child for the Real World

ABC News interview with Julie Lythcott-Haims, who narrated the video at the beginning of this article and is the author of How to Raise an Adult.

How to Raise Successful Kids

Another video by Ms. Lythcott-Haims, who since leaving Stanford, has become an authority addressing the issue of over parenting. This is her TED Talk on this subject.

ABC Australia Interview with Lenore Skenazy

Ms. Skenazy is a mother who lives in New York City who became infamous after letting her then-9-year-old son take the New York City Subway home alone. She was dubbed, “America’s Worst Mom.” In response, Skenazy founded the book, blog, and movement “Free-Range Kids,” with the aim of “fighting the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.