September 12, 2012

The early years of helicopter parenting

Here is a Retro Junk article about sleepovers during the '90s, written by someone born toward the end of 1986. Judging from when he was a pre-teen, and the cultural references made, he's talking about roughly 1993 through 1997 or '98. The article has a reader rating of 198 (thumbs-up minus thumbs-down), whereas the typical article has a rating of under 10, and it's only been up for a couple months. So the picture he paints must be pretty representative.

Those were the years that helicopter parenting had already begun its ascent, when you could just pick up hints of the shifting norms in parenting, and hence the shift in the quality of childhood. I turned 13 in 1993, and so had very little contact with pre-teens during the mid and late '90s, but I do remember how quickly trick-or-treating disappeared, now that I was the candy-passer-outer and had a feel for how many showed up, whether the parents were there or not, and if so how they acted.

First parents would accompany their kids, but stay at the end of the driveway. Then fewer kids showed up at all, and in those cases with the parents moving farther up the driveway. In recent years they walk them all the way up to the porch with their hands fastened securely on the poor little kids' shoulders. Maybe this year they'll show up clinging to their mommy's skirt, or being carried by their doofus dad in one of those pamplemousse thingies.

Those years were also when the wienie patrol started to overhaul playgrounds across the country to make sure kids couldn't have fun on them, removing monkey bars, tire swings, teeter-totters, merry-go-rounds, and lowering the height of everything. And that was when toy guns had to look goofy and embarrassing enough that no boy would want to play with them, and they couldn't fire caps to make smoke with a loud bang.

But getting back to the sleepover article, you see the same gradual changes underway there too. Because sleepovers generally are invisible to the broader public, inside accounts like that are incredibly helpful to understand what was going on. Some of it sounds fairly familiar from my sleepovers during the mid-'80s through the early '90s -- ordering a pizza, staying up late, watching a violent movie, etc. Today sleepovers wouldn't even go that far toward letting kids enjoy an unusual level of freedom.

However, there are also signs that helicopter parents were already starting to push back against the children's demands to grow up and become independent. He describes bringing up the topic with his parents as something that required finesse and good negotiation skills, rather than just asking for it openly and the parents agreeing without argument, happy to know that their kid wasn't a total loser with no friends. There was also a fair amount of planning and coordination directly between the parents, almost like scheduling a play date.

Before that, I think if the parents did talk to each other, it was just about when to show up and whether or not they needed to bring a sleeping bag. From memory, though, it seems like it was mostly us kids who informed our parents of whose house we were sleeping over at, when we needed to show up, and what we'd be doing. The parents let us plan our social lives -- yep, even in elementary school -- and stayed out of our way. In fact, a good part of the time, we didn't plan the sleepover in advance at all -- we spontaneously felt it would be so awesome to have a sleepover that night, and ran begging to our parents, who'd usually go along with it unless there was Real Serious Business the next day. Like I said, they were already OK with the idea, and if anything chuckled at our childishly earnest pleas, as though we thought they might actually turn us down.

And finally there's the activities during the sleepover. From the mid-'90s onward, it looks like they stayed in the host's house the entire time, whereas I remember going out for awhile before it got real late. Usually it would have been something ordinary like playing out in the front yard or the street for awhile, maybe hanging out in the park during dusk (unsupervised of course). But not infrequently, the host parents would take us out to eat at Wendy's or wherever, to go skating at the roller rink, play a round of mini-golf, go bowling, or play video games in an arcade. As we got past 10 or 11 years old, they might also drop us off at the mall to run around exploring for awhile before heading home for the night.

Even within the house, the activities apparently shifted away from physically engaging to more passive things, primarily video games and watching TV or movies. Earlier this year I discussed how Millennials are getting nostalgic for not having much of a life as kids, since their wistfulness revolves almost entirely around video games played at home and TV shows. The sleepover article doesn't mention building forts out of boxes or couch cushions, sheets, and blankets, or pillow fights, or jumping around the bed like maniacs, or other physical ritualistic stuff like Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board (a game that only chicks played, but still something physical).

He made an effort to cover every aspect of the sleepover, from the planning before to the big pancake breakfast the day after, so I don't think he simply forgot to mention those things. You just don't get the impression that physical activity was part of the activities. He didn't mention listening to music either, which used to be standard, at least once you were 9 or 10. Good music animates your body, so that's pretty physical too. Overall the activities seem more adapted to a childhood of vegetation and hibernation.

By now it's even worse, with intensive scheduling of play dates, micro-managing what the kids will be eating, and generally treating them in more of a paternalistic, patron-client way than an encouraging, guest-host way. It's as if it were a mere case of overnight babysitting than throwing a party. But we can see the seeds of that already by the mid-1990s, maybe a little earlier, part of the cocooning trend during falling-crime times.


  1. I was born in 1987. I did roughly 85% of the things in those retrojunk articles. And you know what? Retro junk is the perfect way to describe it. What was so much value to my childhood self, now I look at it as utter garbage and detest that I wasted my life endlessly rotating from one toy/food/show/game to another.

    But I also detested the alternative. Playing team sports with other boys was like unionized labor. I wasn't playing against my friends, I was playing against their father's wrath. I hated the feeling of the hovering dads. It was pure intimidation. For example, the dad would shout at/ grab shoulders / body shake a kid for missing a play (which I caused), and with me watching it would feel like a direct attack against my skill/confidence.

    With a dad never far, I found it antagonizing to develop skill. I even found it antagonizing to practice a skill in secret. If my dad knew that I had been practicing soccer, he would immediately latch on to it and try and coerce me into doing it with other boys (and all the dads). I saw kids on teams as laborers. They didn't seem to like playing on their own- i.e. I never ever saw a game organized by kids away from adults- rather, they just went straight to practice, played for an hour a day, and forgot about it until the next day.

    What did I do? Almost never challenged other boys. Never challenged anything. In retrospect, I would say that my favorite thing was 'imagination' meet ups. I would meet a friend, ride off on bikes, and we would spend the ride imagining we were racing a bike race, riding motorcycles, going after criminals, etc. No goal or destination (never "lets ride to see X. Lets ride over to irritate so-and-so."); the trip was more important for the mental pretending.

    How appropriate that I do not aspire to having a goal or destination in life. I prefer having a good experience instead. And that fucks with my father's head to no end, having been goal oriented all his life.

    I'm not sure if Millenials have fucked themselves over.Its a chicken-egg argument. Are boomers staying in control of the workforce / not letting go of children / not giving any encouragement because they see their children as losers, or have their children become losers because their parents will not let go / want to stay in control / want to avoid encouraging their kids (since they didn't get any)?

    I personally think the boomer generation is still running rampant with unbridled ego-investment. A generation of people who seethe with the idea of their kids becoming sexual human beings. A generation of people who will not let adult age affect their opinion that their kids are still immature. A generation of people who would be shocked and jealous to see their kids in a healthy relationship, with a healthy career path that (god forbid) might actually be better than the one they chose.

    Rant over.

  2. One highly visible example of helicopter parenting that's emerged in just the last decade or so is the way parents wait at school bus stops to watch out for middle school-/junior high school-aged children.

  3. What you said about Halloween trick-or-treating reminded me of something else. It seems that haunted houses got less scarier as the 90s dragged on.

    The first time I went to one, I was like 5 or 6, and it was 1990. It was scary as fuck. Multiple costumed people jumped out to scare the little kids.

    But they stopped doing that as I got older(obviously I stopped going around 10 or 11). The costumes and setups got less gory.

    Also, what you say about trick-or-treating is also true. As a little kid, my friends and I were hardcore about trying to go to as many houses as possible, and we went alone.

  4. Peter beat me to it, but parents in super-safe neighborhoods wait with their (elementary school) kids at the bus-stop. They're also waiting when they come home.

    Also, I've heard of kids who refused to take the school bus at all. Their parents would drive them to school.


    I don't know if this is still the case, but my school bus had a coolness hierarchy where the further back you sat, the cooler you were. The four coolest kids would sit in the back row.

  5. I'd never heard of the parents escorting their kids to the bus stop, but there are lots of first-hand accounts, some with pictures.

    The parents not only escort them to the bus stop, but wait with them until the bus comes. Why don't they just follow their kid inside and sit down right next to them, to maximize embarrassment and infantilization?

  6. "my school bus had a coolness hierarchy where the further back you sat, the cooler you were."

    Age too. When I rode the bus in middle school, only 8th graders sat in the back row, except for one 7th grade chick who looked like she was in high school.

    But if you were in 6th or 7th grade, you could still sit pretty close to the back row, as long as you weren't a dork.

    And the girls who sat farther back were more likely to be a wild child. They knew it was dangerous / cool dude territory, yet they chose to sit there surrounded by it...

    I'll never forget when Marisa, one of the slutty bad girls who sat in the back near us, walked by my seat, paused with a mischievous smile on her face, and burst out with "Dick slap!" Thank god she didn't smack me in the balls, it was more of a playful spank just above.

    I should've turned around and spanked her on the ass when she walked on, but I was still frozen from the thought that a girl nearly hit me right in the nuts.

    I miss the back part of the bus.

  7. "I hated the feeling of the hovering dads."

    Yeah, even in situations where it's supposed to be the kids interacting on their own, the parents try to take it over and treat it like a factory. East Asians are like that -- do what the parents say, don't learn how to socialize on your own -- and look how they turn out socially and emotionally.

    I think it's a mistake to just look at Boomer helicopter parents. It's more of a zeitgeist thing, so no matter what generation the parents are from, they've been hoverers for the past 20 years.

    My parents were both Boomers (born in '54 and '55), but they had me and my brothers relatively young, when they were in their mid-late 20s. My friends who had older Boomer parents were more or less like me, and their parents like mine.

    However, the Boomers who waited longer, like till the late '80s or '90s, became helicopter parents. But that wasn't just them: over the past 20 years, it's more Generation X that's taken the reins of the helicopter parent army.

  8. "I'm not sure if Millenials have fucked themselves over.Its a chicken-egg argument."

    Yeah I think there was a shift among both children and parents, and it's hard to know if one preceded the other, or if they both began changing at the same time, in response to the changing climate of trust / violence rates.

    Even very small children can sniff out which way the social-cultural wind is blowing. They can hear intonations in voices, read facial expressions and body language, and so on, to figure out if the grown-ups seem to be coming closer together or drifting father apart.

    Then, unconsciously, they shift their social / emotional / behavioral strategies in a direction that will fit them to what they've picked up on in their environment.

  9. Broad question, but do you think behavior is based more on the zeitgeist, or on what generation you were born in?


  10. The zeitgeist says what the mean and variance of a distribution will be, and the generational effects say which people will be in what part of that distribution (the rank order).

    So the average of the sociability distribution has been heading in the cocooning direction, dragging everybody that way. However, Boomers are still now, as they were before, the most outgoing, relative to other generations (though less than they themselves were 30 years ago), and Millennials the least outgoing.

    During the previous falling-crime period, in the mid-century, it was also the middle-aged people who were cool, who'd come of age during the 1910s, '20s, and early '30s. Not the relatively dorky young people of the mid-century, the Silent Generation.

    Overall I'd say zeitgeist matters more for why a person is the way they are at a certain point in time. But there are obvious exceptions where generation matters more, like group membership badges -- if you are more likely to use "bummer" or "fml".

  11. " 1910s, '20s, and early '30s."

    Off-topic, but I was looking into this, and the homicide rate didn't start falling until 1937. Now, the homicide rate, being indicative of social interaction, is more accurate of "cocooning" than the general crime rate. So most of the tail-end of the Greatest Generation spent their teen years in a period of rising violence.

    And thanks for your reply.


  12. The American homicide rate? It peaked in 1933. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has data on their website from the CDC's vital statistics from 1900 to 1959, before there was the FBI's more extensive crime rate data.

  13. I guess I was wrong. I just saw the figure when doing a random search.


  14. I had a classic sleepover for my 12th birthday in 1976. 4 of us were there, and we spent a big part of the evening running around the neighborhood after dark. When we ran/returned home, we ran through the sliding glass door in the basement, with two of us well ahead do the other two. Unfortunately, one of the first two closed the door behind him, and the third guy ran full speed into the glass, slicing his nose open-the skin was kind of hanging over. My dad called the kid's dad, who came to pick him up and go to the hospital. The three remaining kids continued on with the sleepover.



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