Helicopter Parents and Interdependence

helicopter great wall

My daughter is studying Mandarin in Beijing for the summer. Recently she went with a new male Pakistani friend on a trip to visit the Summer Palace. Since I didn’t know this friend and she didn’t really either, I asked her to check in with me periodically during the day. Unfortunately, both her phone and her battery back-up died. She told her friend she was concerned about contacting me. He asked her if she was afraid of her parents. She said, “No. We’re really close, actually.” He said, “Oh, your mom is worried about you. She loves you. I thought that American parents didn’t care about their children. That they just all kind of did their own thing. You proved me wrong.” He let her use his phone to call me so that I didn’t worry.

Americans have an over-emphasis on independence that is cultural. It is not universal. And it is not necessarily healthy. I am so tired of reading articles about helicopter parents and the push for children to be independent. For children with special needs, independence means different things and many of them will never be fully independent. It’s questionable whether being fully independent is healthy for any person. Interdependence, relying on one another, seems emotionally, spiritually, and socially more healthy to me.

My first encounter with being accused of helicopter parenting was when my daughter had just turned three years old. I had started working during the day a couple of days a week. My daughter didn’t like to say “goodbye,” when I dropped her off. It was too emotionally hard for her to look back, to acknowledge the pain of the moment. So in order to have a little warm embrace before I dropped her off, I used to carry her from the car to the door. Then I put her down and she ran off to play, not looking back. The day care provider said, “She is too old to be carried,” and implied that this was the reason for my daughter’s extreme tantrums. (Many years later we found out the tantrums were autistic meltdowns.)

Fast forward to my daughter’s first year at college. I had read so much advice to parents about freshman year. Don’t call your child. Let them struggle. Encourage independence. I followed this advice and kept a positive, low profile – waiting for my daughter to call me. My heart broke at fall break when my daughter asked me, “Mom, do you miss me at all?” Of course I’d been missing her! She’s my only child and she’d just moved out of the house. But from my behavior she had no idea that I even cared.

When my daughter struggled the following spring and was diagnosed as autistic, I contacted the student disability office at her college. They made her sign a release to talk with me, which is understandable. What’s not understandable is the totally dismissive way I was treated in trying to get her some support and accommodations. They were very patronizing and kept stressing that they didn’t want to talk with me but only wanted to talk with her, that she needed to be the one to ask for help. I kept trying to explain to them that she is autistic. Communicating and being able to ask for help is precisely her problem. We finally gave up on the college disability office as being completely useless for any kind of advocacy. And I helped create a network of support for her outside the college and encouraged her to talk with her professors individually. She now loves her college life and is really looking forward to starting her senior year in a couple of weeks.

This summer studying in Beijing my daughter has had a lot of hard things happen. She spent nine hours, took four cab rides, and went to three hospitals in order to get medical care for an ear infection. She was left behind at a field trip to the Great Wall and had to find her own way home via van, bus, and subway. A young man assaulted her in the garden outside her dorm at night – she fought him off and got back to the dorm safely. But when I post on my Facebook wall that I can’t wait for her to get home, I get a lot of patronizing messages from well-meaning people that say, “There, there. You’ve got to let go, Mom.” Sorry. No I don’t. I let go enough to help her follow her dream and go study in China. That doesn’t mean I don’t need to worry about her and try my best to keep her safe while she is there. She’s already planning to return to China and is determined not to let anything interfere with her learning. I can be proud of her resourcefulness and resilience, while still being acutely aware of her vulnerability.

Before you accuse someone of being a helicopter parent, you might consider that the child/teen/young adult has some special needs of which you are unaware. It’s questionable whether the push for independence is a healthy model for families in any case but in families with special needs it is not desirable and sometimes not even possible.

I vividly remember meeting with my daughter’s autism counselor. I said to him ruefully, “I guess I’m a helicopter mom.” He said, “That’s good. The patients of mine who do the best are patients who have helicopter moms.” Helicopter parents advocate for their children with special needs. They get accommodations, better school placements, therapies, and resources. They help their children surpass expectations in development. They enable their children to be more independent by giving them the support that they need to grow and to learn. I am constantly in awe of parents who advocate for their kids. So, here’s to helicopter moms! You’re doing an amazing job, you pushy, controlling broads. (And kudos to all you helicopter dads!) Just remember that you can also ask for help if you need it. Here’s to interdependence. We all need one another to live healthy, happy, and full lives.

Pastor Jeanne

More thoughts about interdependence: