Over the last few decades, a trend has emerged, especially in affluent suburban America: helicopter parents. These are parents who feel the need to constantly supervise their children, out of fear that they’ll injure themselves, get kidnapped, or, heaven forbid, not make the most productive use of their time. The name comes from the fact that they “hover” directly over their children, monitoring their every move.
You’ve probably heard of parents like this: they drive their children to school, and immediately after school, pick them up and take them to piano lessons/soccer practice/Trilingual immersion after-school program. Over the summer, these kids’ days are scheduled from dawn to dusk, leaving them with little free time.
This style of parenting has a few advantages. Notably, these children, once they’re adults, will usually be very good at following instructions, and may not value free time as much as other people. This can help them thrive in college (at least academically), and corporate/government workplaces. There are disadvantages, however, such as higher rates of anxiety, paranoia, extreme risk aversion, and great difficulty in making important life decisions.
Now, in all but the most extreme circumstances, courts shouldn’t intervene in the parent-child relationship, or punish parents for helicopter parenting; but given the apparently viable alternatives, should courts be rewarding this behavior, or gradually making it the legal standard for “Good Parenting”? Because, according to some experts, family courts are doing just that. A new paper by two law professors argues that courts are making helicopter parenting the default standard in divorce and child custody cases.
Some (admittedly anecdotal) accounts suggest that courts automatically side with the more protective parent in child custody cases.
When a divorced couple has joint custody of a child, they have the same rights to make parenting decisions as they would have if they were married. In most cases, if the parents have a disagreement over a particular aspect of childrearing, they’re able to resolve it amongst themselves. If the parents are divorced, however, they probably aren’t predisposed to agree about much, and will probably be less likely to work out compromise solutions. When this happens, the family court has to step in and make a decision for them.
Obviously, courts want to avoid intervening in the parent-child relationship whenever possible. It’s generally considered a private matter. However, when the parents are unable to agree on a particular decision, and actively solicit a court to make the decision for them, the court is supposed to consider the best interests of the child, regardless of how it irks one or both of the parents.
If courts are automatically assuming that 24-hour surveillance is good parenting, which is, in turn, in the best interests of the child, they might want to start reconsidering.
Given the evidence that helicopter parenting might not be in a child’s long-term interest, courts should start considering alternatives. Of course, they shouldn’t go to the opposite extreme, automatically siding with the more permissive parent. What they should do is consider all of the available facts. For example, if one parent wants to let a child walk to school, and the other insists on driving them, even though the school is less than a mile away from the house, and the entire route is served by a sidewalk in a quiet residential area, they shouldn’t automatically assume that it’s in the child’s best interest to be driven to school.
After all, walking to school would give the child a decent amount of daily exercise, and with childhood obesity rates through the roof, this is not a trivial consideration. If the helicopter parent plays the “what-if?” card (“what if they’re kidnapped?”), maybe they should consider the other scenario: what if the car the child is riding in gets into an accident? Statistically, this is far more likely than the child being snatched off of the street by a stranger.
I should emphasize that this is not a call for courts to default to the other extreme, automatically assuming that extremely permissive parents are necessarily better. The whole point is that courts shouldn’t automatically assume anything in these situations. They should consider all of the available evidence, and they need to look at the individual situation they’re faced with, such as the personality of the child, where the child lives (Is it a safe or dangerous neighborhood? Etc.), and, of course, the track records of the individual parents.
Perhaps family court judges, if they don’t already, should educate themselves on various theories of child development and psychology, and consult with parenting experts.
In short, judges should not automatically assume that one parenting style is the “right” one, which is what some of them appear to be doing. If judges continuously rule in favor of parents who favor a particular parenting style, it will simply become the norm. In effect, this would mean that the parenting style preferred by family courts (perhaps because it does appear on the surface to be more responsible), will become legally mandated.
For a system that tries to avoid interfering with the parent-child relationship, this definitely seems like an odd result.