Helicopter Mums and Weird Parents

woman in helicopter
This is a woman in a helicopter.

There was some research published this week, and reported in loads of newspapers all over the world, stating that helicopter parenting may negatively affect children’s emotional well-being and behaviour. This immediately made me feel a bit smug because whilst I’m pretty dedicated to my kids I definitely don’t hover over them wherever they go and other parents have commented on my laissez faire attitude, so it must be true. But this is exactly the kind of report that motivated me to start this blog. Why the anxiety? And can this report really be true? There are a couple of things that stand out for me about this study. One, that it reveals the unusual and WEIRD habits of Western parents. Two that it’s a perfect example of why I’m sceptical of psychology research in general.

Joe Henrich and his colleagues at Columbia university coined the term WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) to describe the societies that psychologists study. Myself and most of you reading this fit into this category. David Lancy the anthropologist is pretty clear that as parents we are very weird compared to other cultures across the world. We are obsessed with our kids in a way that is unprecedented. For example all our national and religious festivals are now pretty much focused around spending money on our kids.

So what I take from this helicopter parenting report and the subsequent press articles is not that helicopter parenting is a symptom of being WEIRD, which it probably is but what’s more interesting and potentially more weird is how much these articles are shared and pored over. We might not all helicopter parent our children but we probably do helicopter parent ourselves!

The second most interesting thing from my perspective is the study itself. The psychologists conducting the research invited mothers and children into their lab and observed them for a total of six minutes. SIX MINUTES! In that time they decided that if she helped her child complete the tasks then she was an ‘over controlling’ parent. Anthropologists spend around a year and a half with the people they study before they feel they can make any serious conclusions and yet psychologists are quite happy to make generalisations about the whole of humanity based on these kinds of clinical experiments. I don’t want to bash psychology, I’ve been helped by therapists myself, but I do think it’s really important to acknowledge the serious limitations of much of the research that is done which I think this micro six minute study is a perfect example of.

Joe Henrich who I mentioned above, caused a huge stir some years ago when he published his paper revealing that the vast majority of psychological research is done in the US or Northern Europe. Mostly the US, and mostly with not only WEIRD participants but with psychology undergrads. So when famous studies are cited about the human capacity for generosity or altruism, they didn’t study humans, they studied psychology undergrads. Young people with very little life experience from privileged backgrounds and an interest in psychology. This isn’t representative and doesn’t actually tell us about all humans at all.

As parents we’re often reading about how whatever we’re doing is probably bad for our children. We’re even given lists of developmental milestones to measure our children against which let’s face it, more significantly we use to measure ourselves against. What I’m discovering is that a lot of the research used to inform us is based on a very narrow strip of humanity that may or may not apply to our own circumstances. Jamaican children walk sooner than ours, wealthier US kids talk sooner than their poor neighbours, very young Bofi children are more responsible than ours. Why the variation? Because you don’t get a human without culture, you can’t get them in a neutral lab and conduct a neutral experiment, there is no such thing. It is what being human is and any study that says we are damaging our children based on observing our interactions for six minutes should be seriously questioned.

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