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Helicopter Parents vs Involved Parents: What's the Difference?

Posted by Dr. Meg English

When our children were teens, I spent a lot of time at their high school. Occasionally, I was invited to visit the principal’s office to discuss the implications of their misbehavior. More often I was there because I wanted to help my teenagers thrive in school. I volunteered for everything, kept in regular contact with teachers and read the daily announcements posted on the high school’s website. As a result, I could ask my high school kids informed questions and engage them in conversation about school. They didn’t always appreciate my high level of awareness, but I didn’t care. Parents are supposed to know what their kids are doing.

Not everyone agrees that parental involvement in high school is appropriate. The school secretary was often a little short with me and one day I overheard her use the term “helicopter parent” when talking to a colleague. I assumed she was referring to me. A helicopter parent is a parent who appears to be taking a role that is too active in the lives of their children. It comes from a perception that these parents are “hovering” over their kids.

Related Blog: Helicopter Parents on the Playground: Let the Children Play

But I believe there’s a difference between helicopter parents and involved parents. In my mind, a helicopter parent is typically overbearing and does for the child what the child could do for himself.  Helicopter parents are those who may wield their own power and influence to the child’s advantage.  Involved parents, on the other hand, want to know to know their teenagers are safe and are capable of making good decisions. Involved parents want to provide appropriate encouragement and structure to help their kids emerge into adulthood.

So how much parenting is too much for high school students?  The teenage years are not only difficult, but dangerous. High school students face many challenges that parents simply can’t ignore. High rates of teen suicide, binge drinking and difficulty engaging in school are just some indicators that teenagers need a little more help, supervision, or “hovering” than some critics believe. With regard to teenagers, my friend Kathy suggests “Treat them like adults; watch them like two year olds.”

Related Blog: Are you A Helicopter Mom or a Free-range Parent

This is very difficult to do and parents need the schools to help. Unfortunately, even in elementary and middle schools, parental involvement is often limited to volunteering for field trips or some other type of non-invasive activity such as chaperoning events. By middle school and high school, many schools actually discourage parent involvement. Each time I visited the high school my children attended, I was asked to wear a bright green visitor badge. It reminded me of the “Mr. Yuk” stickers used to warn small children of dangerous substances.

Few among us would claim that parents should take a back seat in the lives of teenage children, and yet calling an involved parent a helicopter parent suggests that they should back off. This term is a hurtful and unfair thing to say about parents who care, especially parents of teenagers. I believe it is time to stop discouraging parents from being involved in their teenagers’ educations, and time instead to promote parent advocacy.

The bottom line is that schools, and especially high schools, need to think about how to help teenagers by helping their parents stay involved. There are many creative ways to engage parents in school that will not interfere with daily teaching and administrative routines. For example, parents can be invited to talk about careers or attend student-centered conferences. They may be invited to help facilitate discussion groups or provide tutoring.

If you’ve been called a helicopter parent, please think about what prompted it. Were you doing too much for your child and hovering over them, or simply caring about his or her well-being and trying to be an involved parent? If it’s the latter, don’t be put off by negative attention. You’re doing a good job. You’re supposed to be involved.


About Dr. Meg English

Meg English is a career teacher. She has taught International Baccalaureate classes, college composition and specializes in non-traditional gifted learners. She has written extensively on education, schools and parenting. Meg has an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and an M.S. in history. She and her husband, author John English, are the parents of two adopted boys and several foster children. They live in Belle Fourche, South Dakota within a few hours of their 6 grandchildren.

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