I’ve spent the greater part of my academic and professional life in the field of child development and have interacted with diverse groups of parents. I find one group - “helicopter parents” - particularly interesting.

They mean well and have their strengths, but many of them are blissfully unaware of the problems their parenting style can create in their children’s long-term development.

Wikipedia notes that “helicopter parenting”, an early 21st-century term, has been used to describe parents who pay extremely close attention to their children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions.

US colleges speak of “lawnmower parents” to describe mothers and fathers who try to smooth out and mow down all obstacles (real and sometimes imagined/fictional) in the path of their children’s progress. Some colleges find it difficult to engage with these parents, especially those who show signs of being “in attack mode”. Our own teachers and university staff often report similar experiences.

Some parents go so far as interfering at their children’s workplaces - in negotiations relating to salaries, work conditions and promotions - even after their offspring have graduated and are supposedly living on their own.

Haim Ginott, a doyen in the field of educational psychology, captures the feelings of a teenager yearning for the space he needs to develop his own identity and mould himself into the kind of person he really wants to be: “Mother hovers over me like a helicopter...”

The rise of the cellphone is often blamed for the explosion of helicopter parenting - it has aptly been called “the world’s longest umbilical cord”.

Media reports often criticise helicopter parents for protecting their children well beyond the norms of expected parental duties.

This practice, many claim, deprives affected children of the opportunity of using their own discretion, making their own decisions (within reason), and making mistakes from which they can learn.

Many of them enter adulthood short of training in these crucial skills. As a result they have difficulty coping with disappointments and other problems and experiences which are part and parcel of daily life.

One female undergraduate who visited our clinic attributed her low self-esteem and a lack of resilience to the fact that “mom makes most of my decisions and does a good bit of my worrying for me”.

To her credit, she now sees how her limited problem-solving abilities are permeating other aspects of her life and restricting the expression of her full potential. She is making commendable efforts to get a good mix of her own thinking on issues affecting her and the guidance she gets from others. She is growing in confidence.

Unlike the children of affirming parents, the children of helicopter parents tend to be less assertive.

Researchers link much of this difference to the “can-do attitude” that affirming parents instil in their kids from the earliest years. These parents are there in the background encouraging persistence when setbacks occur. The children are given permission to make mistakes - and learn from them.

These positive attitudes and skills are then generalised to new situations, e.g. in school or on campus, in the full knowledge that they have already been successful in previous encounters.

They boldly take on new challenges because they have come to believe in themselves and their abilities.

In this context, Jacqueline Kennedy’s widely-publicised response is worth noting: her son, John, then a little boy, had been harassed by a bully while riding his bike in a park. The Secret Service had stepped in to prevent an altercation. Jackie told them that the next time something like that happened, they should let John fend for himself. He needed to learn how to take care of himself, because there wouldn’t always be a Secret Service agent or a concerned mother two steps behind him.

Why do some parents become overly involved with their children?

* Some parents are terrified of being labelled “incompetent”. Consequently, they overcompensate by trying too hard.

* Other parents are afraid lest their children fall behind their peers academically, socially, and careerwise. Perhaps they are trying to ensure that their children do not struggle in life as they themselves did.

* Some might see their children as a reflection of themselves, measuring their worth by their child’s achievements.

* There are those who are perfectionists. They push their children to ever greater heights as a way of vicariously satisfying their own unfulfilled dreams.

Do helicopter parents do anything right?

They do. Like other caring parents, helicopter parents want the best for their children.

No one disputes that. Problems arise, however, when they become overly-involved in virtually all aspects of their children’s activities.

To restore the balance between hovering productively and hovering unproductively, parents will need to examine why they hover and how they hover.

At all times the long-term development of the child has to be kept in mind. It is possible to hover effectively and intelligently.

Also, the commitment of most “helicopter parents” cannot be questioned. Ask hard-pressed principals. They will tell you that these parents constitute a large portion of their regular helpers.

Often they are the ones who bake the brownies, help clean up after school functions and drive the carpools. Where possible they also volunteer to serve as relief teachers and field trip contacts. Schools benefit greatly from their enthusiasm.

From the moment the umbilical cord is cut, children begin their long journey towards independence, step by step. We surrender them first perhaps to their nannies, then maybe to their grannies, then to their teachers, to their peer groups, to employers, and finally to their spouses. It is important for us to encourage this natural progression for proper development.

* Ramphal is a Durban-based educational psychologist with special interests in career counselling and the learning and behavioural problems of children and adolescents

Danger signs

While parental involvement is essential for a child’s healthy emotional, social and academic development, when parental concerns become excessive and show up in behaviours such as the following, there could be a problem:

* Taking whatever measures you can to protect your youngster from hardship, sadness, disappointment, anger or other uncomfortable emotional states.

* Getting involved in aspects of your teen’s life, including studies, dating and friends.

* Stepping in immediately when you feel that your child is having a problem.

* Blaming others for your child’s problems.

* Minimising or finding some excuse or other for your child’s behaviour.

* Using cellphones, e-mail and other devices to keep in constant touch with your child - even when you know he or she is in safe hands.

*l Being prepared to do almost anything to see your child succeed.