Helicopter Parenting, Boundaries, and Responsibility: Gen Y Grows Up – or Doesn’t
March 11, 2008
It’s conversations like this that make me miss writing at this blog on a regular basis. So without further ado, I’m back. And I’ve got lots to say, so spread the word, and join the conversation. Let’s talk about Gen Y.
Rebecca brought up an interesting debate at Modite yesterday. Her position: Helicopter Parenting is good. Of course, it’s not as pat as that, so check out her post to read her reasoning. I think she touches on some good points, and the term “helicopter parents” may be a matter of semantics and over hyped by the media as she suggests, but I have to say, the worst-case types of helicopter parenting that have been hyped by whomever are alive and well, and as a Gen Yer myself, I’ve experienced it on the other side of the interview table. And it’s not pretty when it crosses the line from motherly advice to parental predominance. To me, that’s the issue at hand.
There are so many examples of helicopter parenting that I’ve witnessed in the job process, I have to say that it’s not a good thing. For example, my team once had a candidate turn down a job offer because their parent got too involved in their job search and told them they thought they should make a higher starting salary (even though they had little experience in the field) - it took that person six more months to find a job (and probably a lower salary than we offered) because they blindly followed the advice of a helicopter parent.
Gen Y and the Problem with Boundaries
I think that listening to parental advice is well and good, but I have also witnessed first hand that there is a large segment of Gen Y that struggles with drawing the line with their parents and emerging as independent adults. Because helicopter parent or no, the issue is really with Gen Y. It’s with individuals. And it’s about boundaries.
Boundaries are critical because they give us freedom. Here is an illustration I love: put someone on top of a 50-story building without any railing, and as the wind blows and the building sways, they will flock to the center of it. Put up some railing, and they will go to the edge, peer over, and have the freedom to explore the entirety of the roof.
For Gen Y, boundaries are critical because they enable us to explore the entirety of what it means to be an adult.
I have to say – I didn’t think a lot about boundaries in the context of the parent-child relationship until my pre-marital counseling this weekend. But it makes complete sense, especially applied to this issue.
Essentially, there are three types of parent-child relationships, and two of them are dangerous if they continue on into adulthood.
1. Child-child – In this type of parent-child relationship, parents want to be best friends with their kids, so they don’t set boundaries, and they don’t do a good job of modeling to their kids what it looks like to be an adult. In the context of helicopter parenting, this can become pretty dangerous, because your parents may be intimately involved in the day-to-day decisions of your life, but they won’t be able to provide you with the wisdom of adulthood that you need – because they want to preserve that friendship first and foremost, and they may help you make decisions that seem cool, but are poor ones. This looks like something that happened to a friend of mine, whose parents advised her to get a variable rate 100% loan on her house a few years back, so she could get more house for her money (which was probably what she wanted to hear at the time), but now my friend is stuck in the middle of a mortgage crisis with a rising payment she can’t meet.
2. Adult-child – In this relationship, the parents become so dependent on their kids when they reach adulthood, the kids can’t have boundaries because the parents become so needy: the children take on the role of adult (like they should) but the parents start to play the role of child. This happens a lot of times when parents go through crises in their own life, like the divorce of his parents that our marriage counselor described bringing this issue to the forefront of his life. When things like this happen, parents tend to become obsessed with the lives of their children and often push aside boundaries even if that had existed previously – often because they need something to fill their own lives with, or to distract them from their own issues. So they will give you advice, and tons of it, but if they’re playing the child role in the relationship, is it really advice you should follow? Of course, you should always love and support your parents, no matter what is going on in their lives, but even in order to do that, it’s important to have boundaries in place and preserve them.
3. Adult-adult – This is the healthy type of relationship that adult children can have with their parents. Sometimes, it’s up to Gen Y to set the stage for this and assert their adulthood by setting boundaries with their parents. Especially parents tend to helicopter. When Gen Y takes responsibility and sets boundaries with their own parents so that both are acting on the level of adults, this is the setting where “helicopter parenting” as Rebecca describes it works. And it’s really nothing more than Gen Y acting like grown ups, listening to the advice of their parents, and then weighing it as an adult and deciding from there whether or not to take it. Sometimes, this means you take it. Sometimes, it means you don’t.
But so many Gen Yers I know do not have these boundaries in place, or the ability NOT to listen to their parents when it’s neccessary - and that’s where it gets dangerous. If you can’t function without parental input, then you’re not in an adult-adult relationship, and helicoptering can really set you back. It can paralyze you with indecision, like one friend I know, who can hardly go on a job interview without deep parental advisory sessions prior to it. Or, it can ruin your relationship with your parents, like many who never learned to set boundaries and now just refuse to speak with their parents.
Whether or not helicopter parenting is a good thing simply just depends. It depends on your relationship wih your parents. It depends on your responsibility to be an adult and set boundaries with them. And it depends on whether or not you can think for yourself.
If you’ve got those things in place, then helicopter parenting is not just a good thing, it’s really not a thing at all.