A little birdie once used the term ‘helicopter mum’ to describe a parenting style and the term stuck with me. It was a term that picked away at my deepest insecurities; this was not how I wanted to be nor be described by others.
Helicopter parent (n): A primary caregiver who hovers (both literally and figuratively) over their offspring to the detriment of the child’s learning and independence.
The term ‘helicopter parent’ has strong negative connotations with many associated terms springing to mind: anxiousness, kids wrapped in cotton wool, control freaks, learnt helplessness, worry warts, and the list goes on. It seems that the general consensus is that ‘helicopter parenting’ is not the way we should parent but the jury is out on the right way.
Frowned upon in modern society yet commonplace nonetheless, helicopter parents (like all parents) have a tough gig. Instinctively, parents wish to protect their children from any and all dangers but of course this is an impossible task.
Is ‘helicopter parenting’ a simple case of the ‘protective pendulum’ swinging too far? Like every good argument, there are two sides to every story.
At Little Birdie Books, we are speech language pathologists, so the only area of ‘helicoptering’ that we can objectively reflect on is your child’s communication. So, let’s think about ‘helicopter parenting’ from the perspective of speech, language and communication development. What are the pros and cons?
5 ‘helicoptering moves’ that will actually benefit your child’s communication:
1. Blink and You’ll Miss It
Helicoptering ensures you don’t miss an opportunity to respond to a communication attempt if you are there.
Communication is verbal and non-verbal and often children’s non verbal cues are very subtle and easy to miss. A gurgle, eye gaze, a smile, a pointed finger or cupped hand are all attempts to communicate.
Or as your child grows, if you are by your child’s side or even better face to face: you are there to respond to important questions such as “What’s that noise?”; you are there to label /describe the non-verbal (pointing) “Yes I see the snake too!”; or to interpret verbal attempts of the word ‘plane’.
2. Just Adding Words
Watch them play and add language. Rather than completely stepping away and leaving your child to play independently, adding words to what they are doing is very helpful in developing vocabulary and language.
Remember Language Input = Language Output.
3. Being the Big Kid on the Floor
In some countries, cultures and circles, it is considered quite taboo to join in and actually play with your child. While we know that they learn lots by doing things independently, there is no replacement for actually getting on the floor and showing them ‘how’ to play.
4. Sharing Stories
Sharing books together rather than letting them read alone is hugely beneficial for comprehension.
Adults making comments and asking questions about what is happening in the story and why, is how children become strong readers for life.
This is the premise behind our ‘RichREADING’ activity cards in our Little Birdie Book Boxes. I can remember even as a young teenager reading MacBeth aloud with my dedicated mother in an attempt to make sure I read it and to support my comprehension of the ‘Old English’ by discussing difficult parts along the way.
5. Pointing Positive
Tell your child what to do rather than what not to do – this is a lot easier said than done!
For example say “Be gentle!” instead of saying ‘Don’t be rough!’ or when they are climbing say “Use your hands and feet” rather than “be careful!”
Not only will less make you sound less like an anxious, control freak but it also gives your child the words and the actions for the right thing to do.
Remember, what you say to your child, becomes their inner voice.
On the flip side, there are negative impacts of ‘helicoptering’ on communication development.
5 negatives to ‘hover communication’:
1. Killing the need to communicate?
Your child will have absolutely no need to communicate if their slave (yes that’s you) are waiting on them hand and foot.
Communication was born out of necessity; don’t kill the need for it. The use of sabotage (to deliberately obstruct something) is a technique often used in speech language therapy to encourage a child to use more words or to talk more in general.
We encourage parents to give an empty cup, a toy with a lid on, read a book upside down or pretend to be asleep whilst cleaning your teeth. So don’t preempt every need or want of your child, let them work it out for a bit, even a pointed finger or a whine is a form of communication. It will definitely help their language development and it might even help your sanity a bit too!
2. No time to take a breath?
You may have a tendency to over talk or sound like a broken record. Providing language input or talking to your child is so important but children need to have opportunities to take a turn, not just listen!
Ask yourself, is this conversation balanced? Make sure you give them a chance to have a turn (verbal or non-verbal) in the communication exchange.
Not only will this make you sound less like a control freak but it gives your child a chance to practice what they are learning.
3. Hogging your child’s chat?
You may be stopping your child practicing their communication skills with someone other than ‘numero uno’. Ever travelled or braved a bar on your own and realised how many more people talk to you when you’re by yourself.
Remember this when you take your child on a play date or to a park, you can certainly help ‘set-up’ the play with your child but remember to ‘fade out’ too.
Children will often communicate subtly to each other with non-verbal interactions like imitating each other or exchanging toys (giving or taking) but this could be blocked if you are hovering.
4. No freedom of speech?
If you are constantly telling your child ‘what’ to say and ‘when’ to say it or worse, speaking for them, then the will lose their communication freedom. Their ability to freely express themselves; their needs, wants, ideas, thoughts and feelings in their own way.
5. Missing the warning signs?
If you are so busy speaking and interpreting for your child, you may miss the warning signs highlighting if they are tracking at a similar rate to their peers. You could be lulled into a false sense of security that their speech and language skills are better developed because you are heavily supporting their communication interactions.
Remember that a ‘stranger’ should understand roughly 50% of what your two year old says, 75% of what your 3 year old says and near 100% of what your 4 year old says.
So it begs the question, if I shouldn’t be a helicopter parent, what form of transportation should I be? Some writers have referred to the opposite of helicopter-parented children as free range chicks, roaming the world and discovering their place in it unprompted, undirected and irrespective of the dangers.
Another suggested that there is another type of helicopter parenting emerging…. the ‘lawnmower’. Being one step ahead of your child to smooth out their path and make sure nothing gets in their way.
Whatever the consensus is on helicopter parenting, the bottom line is that it is not a clear cut positive or negative. However, in terms of speech, language and communication development, there is strong evidence to suggest that ‘maternal or paternal responsivity’ from 0-5 years of age is highly influential on the communication and learning outcomes of our children. Does responsivity equal helicoptering? If it does, as your ‘speech-language pathologist’, I recommend that you ‘helicopter away!’
Thanks for hearing our call!
Your Little Birdies,
Tania and Janice xx