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The Rise of the Helicopter Grandparent

Foster W. Cline, MD and Jim Fay first coined the term “helicopter parent” in their 1990 book, “Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility”.  Helicopter parents were listed among their “ineffective parenting strategies”.

Helicopter parents are described as parents who hover over their children constantly, from the playground to first day of college (and beyond), in an attempt to keep them out of harm’s way and remove all obstacles in their paths.

Studies have been done and the results are in:  Children of helicopter parents are more dependent, neurotic, and depressed than children of parents with a more relaxed parenting style.

The chatter about helicopter parenting continues, and some parents seem to be unfairly labeled as such.  These days, if another person perceives that you take “too much” of an interest in your child that person will be quick to label you a “helicopter”.  It’s the ultimate insult on the playground.

But there’s another kind of helicopter up there too.  One that used to hover a little higher but seems to be moving lower and lower with each passing day.  It’s the kind that rarely accepts criticism and always knows best (or so it would have you believe).  It’s the kind that won’t take no for an answer and often uses manipulation to get it’s needs met.

It’s the helicopter grandparent.


grandmother image via Shutterstock

You hear about them on Facebook and Twitter.  You hear about them at the playground.  You really hear about them at BBQ’s and girl’s nights out.  But you don’t hear about them in the news.  Yet.

Parents everywhere are sharing war stories about these much older, and sometimes louder, helicopters.

They circle young parents constantly.

They offer a constant stream of criticism about parenting styles.  They know best, after all.

They buy clothes for the grandchildren so that they will be dressed “appropriately”.  They don’t believe in allowing children to have their own individual styles.  They might even take them for a haircut, without your permission.

They arrange play dates with grandchildren of other helicopters, regardless of whether or not the grandchildren actually play well together.  Because sometimes associating with the “right” people will get you into the best preschool, the best elementary school, the best middle and high school, and…Harvard (or insert your helicopter’s college of choice here).

They watch what you feed your children.  They offer “helpful” solutions for picky eaters and roll their eyes (complete with a huge, audible sigh) when you put a piece of pizza in front of your child.  They are positive that your two year old, who only eats banana yogurt, will love pot roast if you just take the time to make it.

They are certain that you are pushing your child a little too hard, or not hard enough.  They don’t care what developmental experts have to say about child development, they raised their children and that makes them the experts.  Studies are meaningless to these helicopters.

They are more than happy to help in any way that you might need them…as long as you do it their way.

They are not interested in sitting down and following your child’s lead.  Children should play independently.  Children should sit quietly at the table, ask to be excused (regardless of age), refrain from interrupting at all costs (even with an “excuse me, Mommy”), and adhere to a strict set of rules regarding behavior.

Children should be parented…their way.

They mean well, these wise old helicopter grandparents.

They are thinking long-term.

They want the very best for their grandchildren.

They want the best toddler classes, the best schools, and the best colleges.  They want two year olds to tie their shoes because waiting until the appropriate developmental age is just selling them short.  Toddlers are more capable than the experts give them credit for, you know.

They mean well, they really do.

But what is the result of helicopter grandparenting?  The studies have yet to be done….but I have a few ideas.

I see anger and resentment building in the parents.  Anger and resentment that will trickle down to the children.  How can it not?

I see mothers feeling frustrated and deflated.  They are trying their best every day.  They are proud of their creative, smart, talkative children.  They love watching their imaginations bloom.  They really don’t mind the mess or the clean up.  To them, it’s the sign of a great day.

But in a single moment of criticism from a helicopter grandparent, their mom-esteem is shot.  They feel overwhelmed, depressed, and sometimes anxious.  Because, despite their best efforts, apparently they are doing it all wrong.  They are failing.

They don’t know how to cope with it.  To confront it is to possibly start a war that would most certainly affect their children, but to avoid it is to allow the anger and resentment to build.  It’s a lose-lose.

So what do we do?

We find our voices.  They are our children; we do know what’s best for them.

We set limits.

We remain calm.

And when the helicopters hover a little too close for comfort, we call in the air traffic controllers to update the flight path and clear some space.  It’s our family, after all.

Have you ever experienced a helicopter grandparent?

You may also want to read: Mom Guilt


woman image via Shutterfly


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September Day

Tuesday 12th of September 2017

I am the paternal grandmother. My son has full custody of his son and they both live with my husband and I. Our son has set limits and boundaries for us and we respect his role as the parent. On the flip side, the maternal grandparents are a nightmare. They constantly demand visitation every weekend and if my son says he has plans with his son then comes the guilt trip from them and accusations that he is with holding him from them. The maternal grandfather does very inappropriate things with our grandson like the other day they were here visiting and grandson got some chip dip on his arm and hand. The grandpa then takes his arm and starts licking the dip off of him. It was a bit creepy to me and made me feel uncomfortable. He doesnt respect my sons role as father and rather sees his self as the father. He also acts ridiculous when its time to leave almost like he wants grandson to be upset that he is leaving and holds him and prolongs the goodbye until his wife steps in and says its time to go. We call him Disneyland grabdpa cause he constantly tries to lure grandson with fun trips and constant activities that he has planned. The problem is grandson cones home after and then wants nothing to do with us and has behavior problems the rest of the week that we are stuck dealing with and then the weekend comes and they start pushing all over again. Its so hard.


Monday 3rd of April 2017

From a slightly different perspective, what about the grandfather who is married to a helicopter grandmother. The difference is our daughter and my wife are co-dependent. My step-daughter is now spending every other week at our home to avoid the responsibilities of parenting until her husband is available on the weekends. She spends the alternating weeks at his mother's house. This scenario is orchestrated by my wife to deal with our daughter's emotional issues (namely, she has to take care of her two year old). While I understand the frustration of young parents dealing with grandparents who are intrusive and judgmental, what role do the parents play in initiating this relationship and asking for grandparents to be a perpetual support system so they can avoid the everyday responsibilities of parenting. I raised my daughter as a single dad and I started my own business to allow me to be with her on a daily basis, best times of my life, but I want some clarity and structure in my 60's, otherwise I'd start a pre-school.


Saturday 28th of February 2015

This sums up my parents almost perfectly. Any time my parents would watch their two grandchildren (3 and 1) I would get a constant bombardment of criticism. As soon as I walked in the door I wasn't doing something right, which would then work it's way to something else I wasn't doing correctly, followed by one more thing to top it off.

After a year and a half of this, my wife and I decided a month ago to cut out the drama by severely limiting the time our children spent there. This has been followed up by threats of getting an attorney and taking me to court as they claim they have "grandparents rights".

Just yesterday I was informed of this, after I was called "scum" and a "deadbeat" by my mother. She calls me this because I work from home and have started my own internet business. This was out of necessity as my wife has leukemia and she is severely limited in what she can do during chemotherapy, taking care of the children non-stop is completely out of the question. In my parent's mind I am terrible since I don't "get a weekly paycheck." When I brought to her attention I am making nearly triple what I made at the job I left, she quickly retorts with that I should be working 40 hours a week at a "real job" and doing the internet business as a side job. She completely ignores the fact of my wife going through chemo, and rarely even asks how she is doing, I am pretty convinced that she believes we are lying about her illness as she claims we lie to her about everything.

So now we get to look forward to having to spend money on an attorney, while having a single income, paying co-pays, dealing with chemo symptoms, plus raising a 3 and 1 year old. It's a very unfortunate situation, and one that I will be warning my brother of as he and his wife are expecting in 5 or 6 months. Needless to say, they won't be seeing their grandparents anytime soon.

Jane Doe

Tuesday 10th of April 2012

I am the daughter-in-law to the lady that exemplifies a helicopter grandparent!

Just Jennifer

Sunday 7th of August 2011

I think being a "helicopter" parent or grandparent is detrimental to children. In the literal sense, that is.

That being said, parenting, just like all things in life, is about balance. We must keep our children safe, while also allowing them some space and freedom to discover the world. We must give them structure, routine and rules, while also sprinkling in some sponteneity and free time. We must make them eat their veggies, but we can also let them eat cupcakes.

When it comes to grandparents, they have to reconcile the fact that they already raised their children and let their kids have their turn at parenting. I don't think they should offer advice unless asked, and they sure as heck shouldn't judge. Grandparents are meant to be other trusted adults in our kids' lives. We are the parents.

Practical Parenting

Sunday 7th of August 2011

Jennifer, I couldn't have said it better. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The helicoptering needs to stop, but we are all in charge of protecting and teaching our children...grandparents included.