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Does Helicopter Parenting Cause Binge Drinking?

Last year, I did a short blog series on helicopter parenting and the effects this has on students. Recently, I came across an article in the Atlantic that suggested a strong link between helicopter parenting and the alcohol problem on college campuses. It was a really interesting read, not in the last place because the real conclusion the author comes to is much deeper than the somewhat sensationalist title suggests.

The article states several reasons and arguments for the conclusion that helicopter parenting leads to binge drinking in college:

  • “Top colleges reward intensity and drinking is a perfected form of that quality.” There’s also a strong correlation between playing varsity sports and alcohol use (and drug use by the way), but colleges target the varsity sports students.
  • Overall drinking rates on campus have gone down since 1984 when the legal age to drink became 21. They’ve gone down among 18-21 years olds who are not in college as well. That means it’s a very specific group in college that binge drinks: white, privileged kids from college-educated parents.
  • Black students drink less than all other races on campus. The article states this may be because black students are punished much more harshly for drinking than white students, and may even put themselves in danger with the cops.
  • Many white parents believe drinking is a part of being a teen and thus allow their kids to drink in a ‘safe space’—meaning at home, in their room, or with friends. Or they pay for Ubers or taxis to get their kids home safely after parties or proms. Research shows however that teaching kids to ‘drink responsibly’ (for instance in social situations, or a glass of wine with dinner) does not prevent binge drinking in college. The two exists together, because they happen for different reasons. The whole reason for binge drinking is to break every limit, to pass out even.
  • White, college-educated parents want one thing for their kids: success. They’re pressured into performing, winning. Drinking is a release from that.

Let’s look at this line of reasoning. First of all, the article doesn’t specifically state what helicopter parenting is. It uses the term in the title, but nowhere else. In fact, it distinguishes between two styles of parenting: Good Parents and Get-Real Parents. The first enforce the law when it comes to drinking and are strict about it, creating a culture that supports that belief. The Get-Real parents are the real target of the article, the parents who believe teens will drink anyway and will tolerate it, if not even facilitate it. So technically, the title should have read that Get Real parents promote binge drinking.

The question, then, is whether the terms helicopter parents and Get-Real parents are interchangeable. I don’t think they are. Helicopter parenting, according to the definition we used in last year’s series, refers to a style of parenting where the parents are over-focused on their kids, hovering over them like helicopters. It means being involved in a child’s life in a way that is over-controlling, over-protecting, and over-perfecting, in a way that is in excess of responsible parenting. That doesn’t necessarily mean permissive parenting when it comes to drinking. In fact, I’d argue that you could make a case for helicopter parents being equally distributed amongst Good Parents and Get Real Parents.

The Real Problem

No, the real issue isn’t helicopter parenting—though a combination of that with Get Real Parenting certainly won’t help. It’s the no consequences, no limits, over-privileged upbringing these kids get. And yes, they’re white, and they’re privileged, and their parents went to college. That does make it a highly specific demographic that we’ve seen too much in the news lately. It’s the kids that get away with rape, assault, vandalism, and more.

And that’s the real question this article states, correctly if you ask me, but that’s somewhat undermined by the title. Look at the last two paragraphs where the author makes an incredibly valid observation:

“No wonder these young people keep drinking. The hollowness of their lives—the increasing abandonment of religion, the untethering of sexuality not just from relationships but from kindness (…) and the understanding that their own parents care so little about them that they will happily allow them to sustain the kind of moral injuries that blackout behavior often engenders—would make too much consciousness hard for anyone to take.”

And this is spot on:

“What are these kids really vomiting up every weekend at their fancy colleges? Is it really just 12 shots of apple-flavored vodka? Or is it a set of values, an attitude towards the self and towards others, that has become increasingly hard for them to stomach?”

If we try to determine the real cause of college binge drinking, we need to look deeper than the obvious. It’s more than just permissive parenting. It’s a loss of identity, of purpose, of hope even. Surely, as youth leaders, we can step in there…


Source: “How Helicopter Parents Cause Binge Drinking”, by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, September 2016.

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