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.


6 Responses to “Helicopter Parenting, Boundaries, and Responsibility: Gen Y Grows Up – or Doesn’t”

  1. Your comment on boundries is very interesting– especially how you describe it with the railing.

  2. Great post! I love the boundary illustration, and think it’s very true. With constraints are creativity. With boundaries come more risk, responsibility and fun!

  3. penelope Says:

    It isn’t just the young adults who worry about the boundaries. So do the parents–at least the ones with insight and a desire to have an evolving and communicative relationship with their children. They don’t want to be intrusive but it’s hard to loosen the hands on the reins.
    It’s a concern that’s expressed on my blog, http://www.grownchildren.typepad.com.

  4. Mark Says:

    Very good analysis. I have wondered whether having a helicopter parent helps or hurts when it comes to career success. I know numerous people whose parents are very involved in their lives; they talk to each other multiple times a day. Yet, they have had notable success in their careers. Their parents didn’t really get involved in their careers, so I don’t think they are the “extreme” version that is ubiquitous in the news these days.

    However, I really am starting to think that parental involvement in a child’s job search may not be as much of a problem as one might thinks. I think that since most hiring managers these days are in the Boom generation, and they might be helicopter parents themselves, there may not be too much of a problem. Companies like Enterprise, for instance, encourage parental participation in the hiring process. I don’t have any “raw numbers” that show if some parental support might not be a turn-off, but the results may be surprising. And I suspect that as Gen ‘Y’ continues to make waves in the workforce, the stigma will lessen in many circles. The question is whether in other circles (like Gen ‘X’ hiring managers who might resent this involvement), backlash will increase.

  5. @ Jennifer – thanks! I have to say, I borrowed that illustration from our counseling sessions too. It applies in so many ways, I know I’ll be using it for years to come.

    @ Rebecca – Thanks for the inspiration for the post! It’s a great conversation, and one I think our generation needs to be more engaged in.

    @ Penelope – Very interesting blog concept. I wish there were more parents like you out there participating in this conversation! Sometimes it’s so difficult for us to just broach this subject with our own parents, but we can learn so much from the parents of others! I think you’re right that it’s hard for parents to know how much to let go; I also think that it’s hard for young adults to realize that sometimes they need to take the lead and strike that conversation with their own parents – because that perhaps more than anything else will demonstrate to loving, giving, caring parents that you have, indeed, grown up enough that you will be alright on your own.

    @ Mark – I think it truly depends on the individual whether or not helicopter parents are good for a person’s career or not – because it all depends on how you as a professional and individual use their hovering. I’m not by any means saying having unspupportive parents is the answer! I think so much of who Gen Y is is about having parents who were devoted to us and provided us with unparalleled opportunity.

    Parental involvement is one thing, but kids who can’t fend for themselves and need to send daddy to the Board Room for then is another. Regardless of how companies see it – the real issue is personal development and the ability to function like an adult.

    For example, I love my parents, and they support me fully in my career, but I sure didn’t get my recent promotion because daddy was disappointed I didn’t get a raise after my first review!

  6. […] tend to envision being boxed in. But when you’re seeking risk and leaning into what scares you, boundaries actually help you lean out further into the unknown than you ever would without them. Imagine standing atop a […]

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