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The Negative Effects of Helicopter Parenting

In this series on helicopter parenting, we’re exploring this phenomenon with the goal to separate the facts from the hype and see how it affects youth ministry. In the first post, we saw what over-parenting looks like and tried to see how big an issue it really is. In the second post, we looked at research amongst college students, showing both positive and negative effects. But aside from studies done amongst college students, there has been more research into the effects of parenting styles. Let’s look at a few interesting ones.

The Effects of Over-Sanitizing

One aspect of the over-protecting part of helicopter-parenting is over-sanitizing. With the surge in disinfectant wipes, used to clean everything from tables to bathrooms and kids’ hands, kids are being exposed to fewer bacteria and other ‘harmful’ agents—but what’s the long-term effect?

Allergy rates in children are rising throughout the industrialized world. One researcher, Carl Honoré, blames this on oversanitized environments: “Just look at what happened in Germany. Before unification, allergy rates were much higher in the western part, even though the Communist-run eastern half had much worse pollution and more children living on farms. After the countries reunited, East Germany was cleaned up and urbanized—and allergy rates soared.” (1)

And if this feels like anecdotal evidence to you, research has shown the negative effects of over-sanitizing. One study found for instance that health care workers who used hand sanitizers with Triclosan instead of normal soap were six times more at risk for outbreaks of norovirus, which causes most cases of acute gastroenteritis. Using hand sanitizers may actually lower your resistance to diseases by killing good bacteria, which helps protect against bad bacteria. (2)

That being said, I know of otherwise ‘relaxed’ parents who just happen to be a tad over-protective when it comes to sanitizing. It may be one characteristic of over-parenting, but that doesn’t mean that a parent who is over-sanitizing is necessarily helicopter parenting. It may be a minor case of germaphobia for instance.

Extended Adolescence

Of course the phenomenon of extended adolescence has been blamed on over-parenting as well. Young people tend to reach significant milestones (first job, marriage, first child) much later than previous generations. Boomerang kids are a new phenomenon: twenty-somethings moving back in with their parents after graduating college or even later.

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Extended adolescence is a fact in as far as the data confirms the delay of important milestones and the moving back in with parents. But the underlying causes are up for debate, with helicopter parenting being one of them. Commons sense leads us to conclude that an overbearing parenting style certainly could contribute to a lack of independence, but that’s not to say it’s the main cause.

Common Sense Effects

Many effects that are mentioned in relation to over-parenting are what I call ‘common sense effects’. They’re not necessarily backed by scientific research, but common sense makes us conclude they’re logical. Let me give two examples.

Trial-and-error learning trains and develops the brain, making it more sophisticated. When parents take this process away by making the decision for their kids, or by creating a practically risk-free and fail-proof environment, kids’ brains suffer from underdevelopment. (3) Kids also become risk-averse and pessimistic, when they’re being warned for dangers all the time.

Another crucial problem in helicopter parenting is that it encourages dependence. This of course greatly affects decision-making and coping skills of students. Courage, out-of-the-box-thinking, and flexibility are three traits that are underdeveloped when parents over-control kids’ lives. Other (self-labeled) experts mention problem-solving skills, resilience, fear of failure, and low self-confidence.

Once again, the lack of evidence for each of these claims doesn’t mean they’re not true. It’s a safe assumption that someone who grows up in an environment where risk-avoidance is a primary deciding factor, is influenced by that approach to decision making.

On the other hand, it’s safe to assume there are positive effects to over-parenting as well. That same risk-aversion could also lead to someone being careful and not being prone to engage in dangerous behavior, like texting while driving, or driving under the influence. There are two sides to common sense effects, so showing merely the negative side is biased reporting—not that that is new or shocking in any way.

Conclusion: the evidence for negative effects of helicopter parenting outside of research amongst college students is still largely circumstantial and more based on common sense than hard data. Again, that doesn’t mean the effects aren’t there, it just means they haven’t been proved beyond a reasonable doubt yet (which excludes other causes as well) and it means the positive effects should be studied more as well (which is why the case for more involved parents as made in this article was so interesting).

Next up: we’ll look at how colleges themselves are doing their fair share of over-parenting as well and what role technology plays in all this. Stay tuned!

(1) Source: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/17/the-child-trap

(2) Source: http://www.thestreet.com/story/12966410/1/5-hidden-dangers-of-hand-sanitizers.html

(3) Source: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/11/17/the-child-trap

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