The Key to Understanding Gen Y Employees? Helicopter Parents

Everybody’s Fine. Robert DeNiro, playing a recently widowed father of four, discovers that his children have been telling him only what he wants to hear because he held each of them to his expectations, not theirs.

But most poignant was his advice to his most troubled son. As a kid, David wanted to paint. I’m paraphrasing here but DeNiro’s character told David, “don’t be just a painter, become an artist.” David did become an artist. But he also became a troubled soul and unfortunately died a tragic death. In reflecting back, DeNiro talks to David sorrowfully tells him “to paint.”

When I returned home, I quickly “googled” an article I read recently in Time magazine about  the “insanity” of “overparenting.” In it Carl Honoré, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, recalled his son’s reaction to learning he was getting an art tutor to help him draw better. “He look[ed] at me like I [was] from outer space,” Honoré said. “‘I just wanna draw,’ he [told] me. ‘Why do grownups have to take over everything?’”

The Time article diagnosed the scenario as a classic case of helicopter parenting. I’ve written and spoken about it for several years. I even devoted a chapter to it in my book:

…we just wanted what was best for our kids. We bought macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks, hired tutors to correct a 5-year-old’s “pencil-holding deficiency,” hooked up broadband connections in the treehouse but took down the swing set after the second skinned knee. We hovered over every school, playground and practice field — “helicopter parents,” teachers christened us, a phenomenon that spread to parents of all ages, races and regions.

Stores began marketing stove-knob covers and “Kinderkords” (also known as leashes; they allow “three full feet of freedom for both you and your child”) and Baby Kneepads (as if babies don’t come prepadded)…

Overparenting’s been around a long time. Douglas MacArthur’s mom Pinky reportedly moved with him to West Point in 1899 and took an apartment near the campus, supposedly so she could watch him with a telescope to be sure he was studying. In the 1960s and 1970s the pendulum swung the other way. With Baby Boomers reprioritizing careers over kids, the term latch-key kid was coined to denote a generation of kids fending for themselves while their parents climbed the ladder. When these kids entered the workforce as Generation X, free agency and work-life balance hit the proverbial work ethic fan.

But in the 1990s the needle shifted again, but this time it went way past the red line. Parents stopped letting kids out of their sight. Welcome to a generation raised by helicopter parents. Parents who were raised walking alone to school, riding mass transit, trick-or-treating, and selling Girl Scout cookies door to door forbid their kids to do the same. The percentage of kids walking or biking to school dropped from 41% in 1969 to 13% in 2001. Parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and strollers suddenly needed the warning label “Remove Child Before Folding.” Among 6-to-8-year-olds, free playtime dropped 25% from 1981 to ’97, and homework more than doubled.

Parents became so obsessed with their kids’ success that parenting turned into a form of product development. The competition to get your child enrolled into top-flight nursery schools became more fierce than getting an academic scholarship into an Ivy League school. High school teachers began to receive irate text messages from parents protesting an exam grade before class was even over; college deans described freshmen as “crispies,” who arrived at college already burned out, and “teacups,” who seemed ready to break at the tiniest stress.

Some elementary schools had to institute a “no rescue” policy to prevent the daily onslaught of parents dropping in to deliver forgotten lunch boxes and notebooks. Many colleges have a “director of parent programs” to run regional groups so moms and dads can meet fellow college parents or attend special classes where they learn school cheers. Others employ “parent cops” so that during orientation, course registration and Parent Days, the faculty and administration isn’t attacked by parents demanding to know why their child isn’t at the top of the class.

What should come as a welcome relief to teachers and employers, a backlash against overparenting has been building for years (although the teachers and parents who seem to be doing the most griping are the most offensive helicopter parents). The shift is no less prominent than what’s printed these days on toddler tees. We’ve gone from “Baby on Board” to selling baby T-shirts that say “I’ll walk when I’m good and ready.” This helicopter parent insurgency goes by many names — slow parenting, simplicity parenting, free-range parenting — but the message is the same: Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful.

Grounding the hovering helicopter parent won’t be easy. Parental advice from “experts” has been shaping the parenting style for years: from D.H. Lawrence (who said in 1918: “How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.”) to Dr Benjamin Spock, Dear Abby, Oprah and Dr.Phil. But the lag time between the change in child-rearing philosophy and mature offspring takes a generation. And for those adult-age children raised by the not-so-perfect parent, there is no instant replay to reverse the decisions.

By the time parents recognize the error of their ways, the children have already been molded and shaped. While the shift away from overparenting is obviously well underway, it will take years to shift the attitudes and behaviors of the children. Generation X latch-key kids, the offspring of Baby Boomers, shaped recruiting, retention and business strategies for the past two decades. Their attitudes toward work ethic, communication, career planning and more lingered long after they were out from under the short reach of their parents. Generation Y, nearly double the size of Gen X, is now entering the workforce.

Even if their hovering parents are grounded, the “kids are out of the bag” and standing at employers’ doorsteps. 

Previously posted on

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