We’ve all seen the stories about conkers being banned in school or swings being removed from playgrounds due to safety concerns. Even more bizarre is the recurrence of rickets which is apparently due to parents smothering their children in high-factor sunscreen, or keeping their children inside during the summer months due to fears about skin cancer. The result is a deficiency in vitamin D – which is produced, in part by exposure to sunlight – and this in turn can lead to rickets. With more children being taken to school in cars and spending more leisure time indoors, they are not going outside as often as previous generations and sometimes missing out on the 20-30 minutes of direct sunshine a day, five days a week, they need to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D.
It is natural for parents to worry about their children, but sometimes this can go too far. If you find yourself ringing up your child’s teacher about the homework that you did for your child (to get better marks, and therefore more of a chance of getting a place in University or on the board of a leading Multinational) or attending their job interviews with them, it may be time to take a step back.
The worries of parents are entirely understandable, they want their children to have every opportunity open to them and they want them to be safe too. These worries can take over and become something known as “helicopter parenting” a term that highlights the tendency for some parents to hover over their children. Extreme examples sound downright bizarre and implausible, but there are cases where Easter Egg Hunts have turned into parental brawls, friends have been hired for children, and taking things to a new limit, parents have been known to attend job interviews with their now adult children!
Finding a balance is key, and allowing children to experience the pitfalls of life is important in their development. For example, stress can be seen as a negative influence. Certainly, this is true of chronic stress – which is caused by neglect and worry – but acute stress which is a response to a frightening, competitive or dangerous stimulus (as can be found in sport, competition and games) can actually be beneficial in the development of children. In studies, acute stress has been shown to be beneficial for brain development, social skills, behaviours, intelligence and the immune system.
Another study placed children and their parents in a laboratory setting and the children were encouraged to complete as many puzzles as they could in a 10-minute period. The puzzle tasks were designed to mimic the challenging and occasionally frustrating nature of homework and other academic tasks. Parents were permitted to help their children, but were not encouraged to do so.
The parents of children with social anxiety touched the puzzles significantly more often than other parents and attempted to help even when their children did not seek help. This suggests that parents of socially anxious children may perceive challenges as more threatening than the child perceives them. Over time, this can erode a child’s ability to succeed on their own, and potentially even increase anxiety.
Of course, whilst smothering is not beneficial for children, they do need love, encouragement and affection. Loving your child does not make you a helicopter parent. Children who are appreciated and cared for develop an unshakeable inner well-being that actually makes them more resilient and able to withstand life's ups and downs.
As usual, it’s all down to balance. Listen to your child and try not to impose your values and wishes on them. Encourage them to solve their own problems and allow them to face the consequences of their actions. When they’re older, don’t go into their job interviews with them! Keep the helicopter grounded, because an occasional bruise, being allowed to fail, and a little unguided problem solving can actually be beneficial.
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