Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Futurist Kevin Osborn on "Helicopter Parenting"

In celebration of Father's Day 2008, we asked futurist Kevin Osborn to talk about a topic near and dear to his heart: Helicopter Parenting.

For those not familiar with the term, “helicopter parents" are those well-intentioned Gen Xers who are micromanaging their offspring not just in kindergarten and elementary school, but all the way through college and into adulthood.

Osborn, a senior analyst at the Washington, DC-based futurist research and consulting firm Social Technologies, has conducted extensive research on the topic, and in his brief on the topic entitled, “Helicopter Parents: Hovering over Childhood—and Beyond,” he explains that the numbers of helicopter parents are on the rise — and that the trend will have ramifications for educators and employers alike as well as for the parents and children themselves.

“The phenomenon seems to be spreading beyond pushy preschool parents,” he explains. “As a result, some educators have called the 80 million children of baby boomers the most protected and programmed children ever.” Here’s why.

Levels of engagement

This spreading behavior goes beyond pressuring teachers to explain poor grades or asking to place their children in advanced classes, Osborn insists.

“Many of these micromanaging parents continue to overstep boundaries and attempt to control their children’s lives at every age level.”

• Elementary school—Hyper-involved and often pushy, these parents volunteer as school aides to maintain a constant presence in their children’s lives, request specific teachers year after year, and may do the bulk of work on their children’s school projects.

• High school—Helicopter parents become intrusive micromanagers, text messaging their kids in class, continuing to do their homework projects and papers for them, and writing their college application essays.

• College—Parents intervene in roommate disputes, try to register their kids for classes, and contact professors to question grades. At some schools, more parents than kids attend freshman orientation.

• Career—College career offices, corporate recruiters, and human resources departments are all reporting increased involvement and interference from parents. Reportedly, one interviewee at Boeing brought his mom into the interview.

What is driving the trend?

The reasons for the trend are complicated, but somewhat predictable, Osborn believes.

“As family sizes shrink, attention is focused more intently on the one or two children and some parents have responded by sheltering or smothering them,” he says. “Also, many baby boomers have worked hard to develop close bonds with their kids, often positioning themselves as their children’s best friends or closest confidants.”

Plus, he says, the growing spread of suburbs has made spontaneous community interaction more difficult.

“Parents who want their children to have active social lives start planning play dates and signing them up for sports and extracurricular activities at a young age. Some may never step back from these habits of active management.”

Other drivers include safety fears, a heightened sense of competition among baby boomers who fear for their children’s future economic security, and ubiquitous infotech-enabled connection. Additionally, an increasing number of college parents see themselves—in the face of soaring tuition costs—as savvy consumers and their children’s education as a product.

How will it play out?

“If seeing other parents hover compels more parents to join them to ensure that their own children don’t fall behind, the practice will likely continue to spread,” Osborn shares, noting that a number of different outcomes are possible.

• Anxiety disorders—Some children of over-involved parents are likely to become more anxious, risk-averse, and self-conscious.

• Confidence deficit—Denied the accomplishment of setting goals and achieving—or failing to achieve—these goals on their own may carry into these children’s adult years, making them less assertive, possibly less competent, and more eager to conform.

• Suing schools—If parents become more meddlesome in primary schools, the market for liability insurance for teachers will grow rapidly. The number of teachers purchasing liability insurance already jumped 25% between 2000 and 2005, according to insurer Forrest T. Jones.

There are business implications to this trend, as well, he says.

“Hovering helicopter parents want to keep strict tabs on their children, which will expand the market for ‘emergency’ mobile phones for very young children and surveillance devices for older children,” Osborn forecasts, adding that as this group ages parents will continue to want to control. “They may demand control over credit and debit cards, checking and savings accounts, and other financial services.”

From a father’s point of view

But Osborn can relate. The award-winning author and editor of more than 40 books — including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bringing Up Baby (Macmillan, 1997; 2006), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Classical Mythology (Macmillan, 1998; 2004), and The Encyclopedia of American Sports Heroes (Scholastic, 1996) — is also a father.

“Naturally all parents want the best for their children—the best education, the best job, the best life partner, the best life,” Osborn observes. “And all parents want their child to succeed and to be happy. But what many of today’s parents don’t seem to realize is that what they see as 'the best' may not be best for their children."

The surest road to happiness and success is to define—and then pursue—them oneself," Osborn believes.

"By not giving their children the room to discover and define what makes them happy and what success means to them—by not letting their children grow up—they may be leaving them rudderless—and ultimately unhappy—throughout their adult lives.”

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