When my oldest daughter went off to college in 2005, I was introduced to a new term in the orientation meeting her university provided—“helicopter parenting.”

These are parents who micromanage every aspect of their adult children’s lives, even so far as to contact professors regarding their adult children’s grades, show up at job interviews, and call employers to negotiate employment contracts. (Yes, this really happens!)

Helicopter parenting is not just a phenomenon related to the parenting of grown children.  It is a style of parenting that shows up early in life—even with infants.

Sometimes referred to as “intrusive parenting,” the parent goes to great lengths to protect their child’s “self esteem” and guard against any hint of disappointment, frustration or emotional distress.  Their children are often told how “special” they are, and mom and dad jump through an ever ending array of hoops to orchestrate and provide a “perfect” or stress free childhood.

The child is never told “no.”  Every wish and whim is catered to for fear of causing the child to feel rejected. 

If the child encounters something that evokes any level of frustration, the parent steps in for the child.  If teachers and child care providers place reasonable expectations on the child, at which he balks, mom and/or dad find a way to excuse him from those requirements.

But one day, it will hit the fan when parents find that they have a tyrant on their hands who is unable to handle even the smallest of disappointments and insists that parents (teachers, employers, and spouse) meet their every demand.

How self-esteem is NOT nurtured

Our culture has a serious misunderstanding of how self-esteem is developed within a child.  It does not happen by patting our kids on the back and telling them how “awesome” or how “special” they are.  It doesn’t happen by giving every child a trophy, a sticker, or piece of candy.

Self-esteem develops when children are given the opportunity to encounter and successfully overcome manageable challenges.

There is within every child an inborn drive to master the world.  When we attempt to protect our children from any degree of frustration and distress we actually undermine their self-esteem.  We send the message that, “you are too weak, not smart enough, or not capable of handling this situation.  I have to do it for you.” This is how self-esteem is undermined.

How self-esteem IS nurtured

It is important to note that children need “manageable challenges,” not “overwhelming” challenge.  A manageable challenge is one that is on the leading edge of the child’s abilities.   There is reasonable certainty that he has the emotional, social, cognitive and physical capacity to accomplish the task.  This doesn’t mean that he may not need some adult instruction or support, but he doesn’t need someone to do it for him.

For example, a three year old is building with blocks and carefully attempts to make a tower “as high as the table.”  He gets to a certain point and the tower topples every time.  After 6 or 7 attempts, the child’s frustration is evident.  At this point mom might say, “I wonder what would happen if you used bigger blocks on the bottom?”  She doesn’t jump in and do it for him; she gives the minimal amount of support needed for the child to successfully complete his task on his own.

Allowing our children to experience, and overcome, failure contributes to a healthy sense of self-esteem. 

This is one of the primary values of play.  Children encounter and try things that are at the leading edge of their abilities.  They try and fail; they try and overcome – in a context that doesn’t have catastrophic consequences.

Play allows children to “try life on” and figure out what they can and can’t do.    They encounter manageable challenges that require them to be problem solvers.

This is the essence of self-esteem.

Do you see new opportunities to jump out of the helicopter, and start building real self-esteem? Have questions?