Confessions of A Helicoptered Kid - Kimberly Thompson

I sometimes get myself in trouble with parents and with other professionals because I come firmly down on the side of giving children as much autonomy as possible, as early as possible. This includes taking a wait-and-see approach when babies wake up in the middle of the night, encouraging toddlers and preschoolers to play independently, and sending kindergartners off to public school. My point of view has evolved over many years, and I think it would be useful to explain how I arrived at this place.

I was a helicoptered kid. Decades before “helicopter parenting” was a term, I was the only child of parents who had suffered infertility for years. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, nobody could tell my parents why they hadn’t conceived and there weren’t many (if any) treatments. When I was born, I was their “miracle baby.” My mother told a story about when I was a newborn, the only way they could get me to sleep was for my dad to hold me on his stomach, but then she couldn’t go to sleep for fear I would fall. This was the start of the intense anxiety that was directed toward my well-being. I absorbed this and became an anxious child. For years past the time when it was developmentally appropriate, I was terrified of the dark and most nights could not sleep in my own bed.

When I was three years old (1966), I had to have blood drawn two weeks in a row. It is one of those “flash bulb” memories that is burned into my mind. The first time it took 6 nurses to hold me down. The second time they wrapped me in a sheet. I firmly believe that this led to my lifelong needle phobia. It has been more than 50 years since this event, but I still battle the fear. I have desensitized myself to individual needle sticks, but if I ever have to have a medical procedure involving an incision or multiple sticks, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and panicky. A few years ago, I asked my mother the reason for the blood draws that started this whole problem. She said that I had been saying I was dizzy, and she had taken me to the doctor, afraid I was developing diabetes like my grandmother. I had to walk out of the room to avoid rolling my eyes at her. My grandmother had had Type 2 diabetes, and at the time I was a normal-weight three-year-old. This happened in an era in which Type 2 diabetes in children was virtually unheard-of. Not to mention that I vividly remember that as a young child I loved to spin and loved being able to make myself dizzy.

My mom was not a medical professional, and so I have some hard feelings directed at the doctor’s office that ordered those blood tests. I can see how it was easier to order tests to reassure my anxious mother, and how there’s always a possibility there’s something objectively wrong. But I can’t get around the fact that I have battled an intense phobia for the rest of my life because of a trauma that was avoidable.

Kindergarten, my first experience being out of the home, was relatively uneventful. It was fun and I had a sense of freedom. In first grade, however, I had school refusal. I was terrified of the evaluation that came with the first “real academic” year. My anxiety was so intense that I would throw up every day before school. I would cry and cling to my mother. Once at school, I would cry if I made anything less than 100 on any assignment. I was easily shamed and felt personally attacked if the class was scolded for anything. I missed a lot of school that year – yet I was the top student in the class. How much harder it would have been if I had had a learning disability or attention deficit problem.

I wasn’t allowed to wade in the ditches hunting for crawfish like the rest of the neighborhood kids. It’s a good thing that we had a long driveway, because in elementary school I was not allowed to ride my bike on the quiet residential street. I can’t remember having a sleepover at a friend’s house until I was in junior high. I was never, ever, left with a babysitter. I even accompanied my parents to dinner on their anniversary.

There’s another aspect of my childhood that doesn’t always go with helicopter parenting, but bears mentioning. Except for school, I was expected to live 100% in an adult world. My parents chose to only make friends with much older people whose kids were grown up. I was frequently expected to accompany my parents to their friends’ homes for dinner and to keep myself occupied for the evening. My parents had a rural property with a cabin, close to my grandparents, where we would spend the entire summer every year. I knew no other kids in that small community, and it was lonely. As soon as I could read, I was checking out huge stacks of books from the county library and escaping into other people’s lives. By high school, there were so many things that I just didn’t ask to do because I had lost any hope that I would be allowed to do them.

Because helicopter parenting is so exhausting, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a lot of helicopter parents deal with it by expecting their children to conform to the adult world. The unconscious reasoning is, “All my time and energy is spent supervising the kids. I don’t see why I should have to [insert kid-friendly accommodations] as well.” Alternatively, parents may make everything revolve around the kids, losing themselves during the child-rearing years. That leaves one or both parents completely bereft when the last of their brood leaves the nest. This may create guilt in their children about moving away for college or for the best job. They extend helicopter parenting into their children’s twenties and thirties because it has become a way of being for them.

I started out as a helicopter parent, but I couldn’t keep it up. I did not have just one child, but four. I did not have an elementary teacher for a husband, that got home at 4:00 every day and had the same holiday schedule as the children, but was married to an obstetrician/gynecologist with a crazy schedule year-round. Even though I did stay at home full time for fourteen years, I started back to graduate school when my youngest was four and my oldest was thirteen. Slowly, over time, I got a better feel for what kids could reasonably do on their own. I became an enthusiastic advocate of them doing as much as possible for themselves. Here is what I found:

1) Releasing your kids begins the moment you push them out of the womb. Creating an 18-year-old that is ready to go to college, join the military, or otherwise be gainfully employed is a bit-by-bit process.

2) You can’t avoid messing up. Fear of making mistakes and guilt over the ones you’ve already made will do more harm than good. The goal has to be thoughtful, responsible parenting – an orientation toward mistake-avoidance leads to anxiety and overcontrol.

3) Your kids are going to mess up. For some of them, it will be blatant errors of commission (defying you, getting written up at school, getting cross-ways with their friends). For others, it will be errors of omission (fear of expressing themselves, following the path of least resistance). When your kid messes up, remember it’s not all about you.

4) Parenting style is a continuum from overprotective to neglectful. Healthy is a broad band in the middle. There’s not a single point of “right” on this continuum, but you can go too far in either direction. Helicopter parents seem to think that there is no risk in overprotection – but that’s not true.

My parents were excellent in so many ways. They encouraged me to develop my talents. They were there at every school play and concert and meet-the-teacher. They set reasonable and consistent limits with my behavior. They took me to church and to the library. They paid for an expensive private liberal arts college. My dad spent countless hours sitting in his truck, waiting for me to finish choir or drama practice after school. This post is not about bashing them. The way they parented was a perfect storm of many different factors, including long infertility, a predisposition to anxiety that they didn’t choose to have, and essentially being rural folks living in the fourth-largest city in the U.S.

Today’s helicopter parents also have good reasons for doing what they do. We have a whole culture these days that panics if an elementary-age child is allowed to wait in the car while their mom picks up a pizza or is allowed to walk to the neighborhood park alone. We are so, so intolerant of anything that involves even mild risk – usually situations that parents once didn’t consider risky at all. I firmly believe that the overuse of technology is directly tied to this societal demand that children be supervised 24/7 practically up to the age of majority. When a child or teen is glued to a lighted screen, they are not at risk, are they? Oh yes, they are. They’re at risk for a sedentary lifestyle, of poor vestibular development, of escaping into a virtual reality that steals away the vibrancy of real life.

You cannot escape risk. You can only choose what is worth risking. Helicoptering your children is just a different kind of risk.


I’m Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist with a maternal mental health practice in Lubbock, TX. From pre-conception to the empty nest, mothers can work with me in-person and online. Download my free e-book, The Busy Mom’s Self-Care Planner, and bring yourself into the circle of care. You can also find my book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, on Amazon  or Praeclarus Press.