Some time ago, a parent in my daughter's school's Whatsapp group was furious that her adolescent child came home without finishing all the idlis in her snack box. She insisted that it was the teacher’s job to make sure her daughter completed her lunch before coming home. I was perplexed. Shouldn’t the child learn to listen to her body and eat only the amount she wants to eat?
This was a classic case of helicopter parenting, where parents constantly hover over and micromanage every aspect of their child’s life at school and at home. Though the term has its origins in a 1969 book, titled Between Parent and Teenager by Dr. Haim Ginott, the concern over this behaviour—and the behaviour pattern itself—never seem to die down in the country. Indian parents are known to pressurise their children, seemingly in the interest of their future.
Gomathi D, a preschool teacher based in Chennai, believes that this is worrisome, especially when she sees it in the parents of preschoolers, who are overprotective to an alarming degree. “Parents are not able to let go,” she says. “Their child has a fall and they get worked up. They constantly call the preschool for small things. They do not try and understand their children as people in their own right. Instead they have strict schedules and separate meal times for their children.”
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Last week, I saw a parent complain on social media that his son’s classmate tried to entice him to play video games. The parent had a very clear policy at home—no videos, limited television, and and no video games at all. He complained to the teachers in school, insisting that the other kids should not talk to his son about video gaming because he felt that his son was not able to say no to these children.
Psychologists would argue that a child learning to say no is precisely the skill he or she must cultivate on their own, unless the child is very small or is in danger. According to a 2018 study by Nicole B. Perry and team from the University of Minnesota, published by the American Psychological Association, over-controlling parents can impair a child’s ability to handle their emotions and to exercise a crucial skill—self-control.
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Fathima Asghar, a Bengaluru-based parent consultant and coach, and the founder of EvolveED, believes that parents should control the environment and not the child. “As parents, we are not in control but in charge of our child,” she says. “If your children are getting too much screen time, the solution is not to ban gadgets altogether but to give children the right orientation when it comes to using these gadgets, including setting screen time limits and certain norms for the entire household.”
She gives the example of a couple who came to her for help. Their second child, a daughter, argued about everything, refused to eat and even resisted bath time.
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After speaking to the parents, Asghar found that the mother was addicted to productivity and control. She believed that not a minute in the day should be wasted. “I asked the parent to take a few days off to do something fun that her child loved to do, even if it meant watching the birds fly or ants crawling on the floor,” says Asghar. “After three days, she got back to me and told me that her daughter wants to do more things on her own and is no longer resisting meals or baths. In this instance, the parent stopped controlling the child and actually connected with her.”
Anuradha Chadha, a Bengaluru-based educator, says that whenever she asks a student to make a choice, the answer she gets is, “I will ask my mom and tell you ma’am,” even for something as trivial as a decision about joining a school club.
“Helicopter parenting can hinder a child’s ability to solve problems and cope with difficult situations.” she says. “When a parent wants to control the child too much, the result is that children are always looking for external validation of whatever they do. Good learners should be able to form their own learning targets and work towards achieving goals that they set for themselves and therefore derive satisfaction from what they are able to do. Children who are independent are definitely more confident, and therefore better learners.”
Should parents just let the child be? The answer is not as simple as that. "You need to reflect and see if you are getting over involved,” says Asghar. “Your children will indicate that there are times when they need you. When they hint that they don’t need you, you need to back off to give them that space. At the same time, keep an eye on them, direct them and instruct them but do it with a lot of awareness.”
There are many schools that invite parents to sit in on classes and observe them. I know many parents who go almost every month. My daughter’s school invites parents, too. I went in for a day but my daughter told me she didn’t need me to come in. I let go, trusting my daughter to navigate situations on her own. I decided not to go again.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.