Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?
Recently I found myself cornered into a discussion about the appropriate age to arm your child with a mobile phone. As I reluctantly considered my position, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up to warn me against the opinionated and stereotypical judgment I was about to make. Heeding the warning, I feebly replied, “Whatever age the parent feels is appropriate.”
I later posed the question to Siri, who informed me that around 50 per cent of kids in the United States and United Kingdom had a mobile by 10.3 years of age, with Australia not far behind. I was also intrigued to know why parents felt the need to get their child a phone in the first place. Answers included, “So I can keep in touch”, “In case of emergency”, “So I can stay involved”, and, “Because their friends have one”. The reality is, however, that parents whose kids had phones actually wanted their kids to have them, inadvertently creating what is commonly referred to as ‘the world’s longest umbilical cord’ and a major contributor to the syndrome known as ‘helicopter parenting’.
The ‘helicopter parent’ is not new, indeed the term first landed in the ‘60s, but today the phrase takes on new meaning and, with the advent of the smartphone, is more prevalent than ever. The helicopter parent hovers over their child, being overly intrusive and taking on far too much responsibility for their child’s choices and outcomes. They work hard at lining things up so the kid will have a perfect life, sheltered from harm’s way and free from the heartache of rejection. Engineering the child into the right class with the right teacher, directing play, controlling their interests, hobbies, extra curricular activities and even doing their homework are all examples of overparenting or ‘hovering’.
The effects of helicopter parenting are real and long-lasting. Research shows that overbearing, overprotective and overly controlling parents run the risk of subjecting their children to life-long psychological harm; it can stunt their independence, happiness and general wellbeing, and leaves them less able to regulate their own behaviour. It has been shown to be comparable in scale to an individual who has suffered bereavement. As the cotton wool falls away and the child matures, they can struggle to be self-sufficient, have difficulty developing relationships and careers, struggle to cope with setbacks and find it hard to rebound from failure; a result of never having made their own choices and learning from their mistakes.
Child-rearing is challenging and the human instinct to protect a child at any cost in the face of danger is understandable. However, at some stage there is a tipping point and it can be a slippery slope if boundaries and rules are not enforced from an early age.
According to a recent article in Time, Western parents tend to enshrine their children and crave their friendship, often resulting in parents obeying their children rather than the opposite. On a more positive note, there’s strong evidence that parental involvement is correlated with positive child outcomes, but it can be associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression if it’s not developmentally appropriate.
What should parents do? Focus on the long-term picture rather than the short-term bailout. If you feel you’re using your child to fill a gap in your life, consider working on your own needs and pursuits. Talk to your kids; ask them how they would handle a tricky situation, support their response and try not to intervene. If your child is struggling with something, resist doing it for them and offer coaching instead. As for when to get your child a mobile phone, Bill Gates reckons 14 is okay, but Steve Jobs didn’t let any of his children use Apple products. Maybe they foresaw the negative impact on child wellbeing.
For further information, please email Jeremy at bondicounsellingservices.com.