You’ve seen the story making the rounds amongst parents and academics that correlates helicopter parenting with college-age depression. You might well have nodded along as you read the horrific stories of awful parents who dictate their kids’ university choice, major and even study habits. These are truly wrong-headed individuals who, by micro-managing their children’s lives well into adulthood, deprive them of the chance to learn how to be independent, self-reliant and find their own happiness.
That said, I take issue with a big part of the article’s claims.
As parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?
You’re right to be thinking Yes, but do we know whether overparenting causes this rise in mental health problems? The answer is that we don’t have studies proving causation, but a number of recent studies show correlation.
The emphasis is that of Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the book from which the article is an excerpt. The former freshman dean at Stanford candidly admits that she knows this overactive parenting culture all too well and frequently has fallen into some of the bad habits she herein decries. I’m good with anything that helps to counter the scourge of parents who treat twenty-somethings as toddlers or leads to mom or dad buttonholing profs and TAs over what’s properly the student’s turf. And don’t get me started on that smooth rhetorical slide right past the whole correlation line because we all know correlation is not causation, right? Right!
In any case, I’m troubled by the easy equation of depression in college-aged people with the evils of helicopter parenting. Yes, that can be one factor, but is it the only or even the best? I’d say no. There’s a whole raft of reasons for the youth of today to be profoundly depressed. It’s the economy, stupid! We’re destroying the planet and waging war worldwide. Even if we focus in those problems directly affecting colleged-aged people who are actually going to college, there’s still enough fodder for a real-world dystopian Hunger Games: ruinous tuition increases, student debt that’s impossible to discharge, gutted support for students, dismal job prospects and political leaders enthusiastically dismantling public higher education. Oh, that’s cheerful, isn’t it? Let’s not forget how these young people have been hemmed in by decades of “No Child Left Behind” and other onerous testing regimes in their school lives, or communities that eagerly police the practices of “free-range” parenting. When students revolt against standardized tests, how are we surprised?
But ignore that man behind the curtain, Dorothy. No, look at the bad parents here and there. Why, they’re the cause of this whole problem! Let’s just get them to change their behaviour and, sure as shooting, young, crestfallen folk across the continent will start to perk up.
That’s ridiculous! This is a small fix for only a tiny slice of a big problem. But it’s easy, ridiculously easy, to stir up popular disgust with painful parenting practices such as those described in the story. Nobody can justify those excesses, but nobody can sustain the argument this helicopter parenting the key to the real mental health crises on university and college campuses or in those peer groups beyond the ivory tower.
Depression is an illness but there are people who can help you. Depression is serious, depression is real and depression isn’t banished by condemning over-the-top parenting practices. We need to accept that helping young people manage their mental health takes resources, commitment and actually paying real attention to their concerns.
So let’s stop feeling as if condemning one particular brand of bad parenting is what we need to do to support students with their mental health issues, okay? Thanks.