Saturday, January 05, 2008

Family Surveillance: Helicopter Parents and the Wireless Leash

I've noticed quite a bit of coverage lately coming out of the UK dealing with "helicopter parents", a term / phenomenon originating in the US that describes contemporary parenting styles characterized by intense levels of involvement with kids' accomplishments (in sports, arts, etc.) and academic success. For example, The Guardian has published two articles in the past week dealing with the subject, following some late-December coverage in The Telegraph. And it seems that UK schools and employers are having as tough a time as North Americans dealing with the shift. As Donald MacLeod writes for The Guardian:
They've been at their student children's open days, interfered with the Ucas form and swooped in to challenge anything from essay marks to college accommodation. Meet the helicopter parents, so-called because they hover over their children, interfering and directing their lives in a way that would probably have embarrassed standard pushy parents.

A phenomenon already established in the US, British universities are now beginning to suffer at the hands of the new breed, particularly at careers fairs. Helicopter parents oversee their child's first graduate job application, prep them for tests and interviews - and have even tried to renegotiate starting salaries.

Paul Redmond, head of careers at Liverpool University, said their arrival was evident at careers fairs across the country last year, and that some students had been barged aside. "In future we will have to be more open and say it doesn't look particularly impressive to have your parents with you at a fair," said Redmond.

"Several high-profile graduate recruiters have reported incidents where parents have contacted them to negotiate a starting salary. Others have had parents contact them to complain about a 'child' who has been overlooked for promotion," he writes on

Companies have also complained that recent graduates have had everything done for them by their parents - to the point where they cannot get to a meeting.

In his own article on the subject Redmond identifies 5 different types of helicopter parent, which include "white knights" and "bankers". It's kind of a fun way to relay the diverse forms the phenomenon can take, but I'm not sure that categorizing "types" is all that helpful in understanding the shift and its impact on family dynamics and kids' socialization into adulthood. There's also a link made to mobile phone use among youth, which Redmond calls the "longest umbilical cord in history" -- though the connection is not explained in much detail.

Redmond's article is also covered on the BBC News site, although it's mainly a reprint / summary of the original. Similar arguments are made in an earlier article by Sarah Womack for the Telegraph. For example:
The term "helicopter parenting" was coined by Madeleine Levine, an American clinical psychologist, who claimed in her book The Price of Privilege: "Kids are unbearably pressured not just to be good, but to be great; not just to be good at something, [but] to be good at everything."

The rise of the mobile phone is often blamed for the explosion of helicopter parenting - it has been called "the world's longest umbilical cord".

Has the perpetual access enabled by mobile phones really lead to a massive shift in the ways in which parents and children interact? Or does the technology simply reinforce emergent behaviours that are concurrently being driven by much larger social, political and economic forces?

The issue of freedom vs. constraint certainly comes up a lot in discussions of mobile phones and young people. The helicopter parents coverage reminds me of other ways that mobile phones allow changing parent-child relationships to play out in technologically-mediated ways. Consider the various new services, such as Telus' Kid Find and Disney's Family Centre, that transform mobile phones into tracking devices, and allow parents to put controls and limits on how the technology can be used. We assume that these features will always only be used for benevolent and legitimate parenting purposes, but rarely consider how they are changing kids' sense of privacy, core family dynamics and social expectations of parental responsibility. Check out this article on AT&T's new "wireless leas" that appeared early this fall on
Parents are accustomed to setting up filters on their kids' computers that bar certain Web sites and blocking adult-themed channels on their televisions. "Now, with millions of children -- some as young as kindergarteners -- getting cellphones, the options are expanding for parents who want to set limits on their kids' wireless activities as well. The WSJ looks into the latest control options available - such as AT&T's Smart Limits service which just launched.

The new controls include those that limit the hours that children can use their phones for calling or text messaging to those that block access to inappropriate content on the wireless Web.

Wireless companies and handset manufacturers also are adding new features that actually help parents keep tabs on where their children physically are, addressing the peace-of-mind concerns that caused them to give their kids cellphones in the first place."

Lots to think about here.

1 comment:

Rae Pica said...

This is a fascinating and disturbing trend. Judith Warner's book, Perfect Madness, contributes some insights into how parents -- moms in particular -- came to be overinvolved in their children's lives. But I think we as a society need to take a close look at what's being done to children under the guise of protecting them. It's frightening to imagine the upcoming generations of young adults who'll have no ability whatsoever to be self-directed.