I keep hearing about “helicopter parents” – you know, the ones who hover over their kids all the time. Helicopter parents don’t let their kids make independent decisions. They shelter their kids from any responsibility; they go from orchestrating preschool playdates to directing college applications without allowing the kid any increase in independence. My friends who teach in local colleges complain about the phone calls from parents asking for extensions or arguing about grades or protesting the patently unfair treatment that must have led to little Alistair’s recent C-. There’s a general chorus of disapproval at the way today’s kids are coddled.
The common wisdom says that helicopter parents are afraid to grow up, or they’re afraid to set limits on their kids. They want to be pals with their children and won’t accept adult responsibility. That’s not what I hear in these stories. So many of these anecdotes carry with them a sense of deep anxiety. I don’t see parents worried that their kids won’t like them; I see parents who are terrified that their kids won’t be successful – and I don’t mean successful like wealthy and famous, I mean successful like having a home and enough food and decent medical care. Maybe even the pipe dream of a secure retirement.
Many of us who are now parents have watched the American economy change radically over our lifetimes. We’ve seen interest rates go up and down like unleashed balloons. We don’t remember a time when a high-school diploma was enough to earn a living. We know lots of people who’ve been laid off, or downsized into consultant work without benefits, but not many who’ve worked for the same employer for more than five years. We’ve been told that Social Security won’t survive our retirements, and we’ve seen our real wages and purchasing power fall while the economy expands and CEO salaries rival those of baseball players.
At the same time, the political climate has shifted so far to the right that we can’t even talk about government funding for health care and child care – topics that were part of the national conversation when I first voted for president in 1980. It’s become an article of faith that taxes are always bad, that we can’t trust the government with our money, that we should be taking care of ourselves. We think of the 1950s as the era of the nuclear family, but in the 1950s the family had help from a much better-funded school system, and their kids played on fields and in community centers built by taxes that have since been abolished. Government money paid for jobs in universities and hospitals and defense plants and the industries that supported them.
I’m not much on nostalgia for the good ol’ days. Seems to me that in the good ol’ days I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to medical school, and my white friend MPJ wouldn’t have been allowed to marry her African-American husband, and their kids would have been legally forbidden to attend school with mine. My daughter’s Dominican classmates would have been stuck in a classroom for the “uneducable” because they didn’t speak English. As Billy Joel says, the good old days weren’t all that good. But today could be a whole lot better if we could go it together instead of alone. We need to rewrite the myth of rugged individualism. It’s enough already with the cowboys riding alone on the prairie; let’s choose another image out of American iconography. How about a barn-raising, or a quilting bee, or a gang of field workers bringing in the crops? I’ll take almost anything that helps us face the future together instead of feeling like we’re sending our kids out on their own into a world that offers them no support.