PhD student Josh LeBlanc and Guelph professor Sean Lyons are studying helicopter parenting.
PhD candidate Josh LeBlanc, left, and Prof. Sean Lyons.

When management professor Sean Lyons heard stories about parents attending their children’s job interviews or calling their children’s employers to complain about negative performance reviews, he found them hard to believe. But the more stories he heard, the more he became interested in studying the growing phenomenon of helicopter parenting, defined as parents who have trouble giving their children the freedom to become independent adults.

“What started out as a very well-intentioned advocacy for children has gone to the extreme of becoming a liability for children by taking away their autonomy, their need to fend for themselves and their ability to fail and be resilient through failure,” says Lyons. “It’s all done out of love and the genuine desire to help their kids,” he adds, but parents need to be aware of the line between helping and harming their children.

He says helicopter parents are often well educated and have the means to support their children both financially and socially. Although these parents have good intentions, their actions become inappropriate when they interfere with their children’s ability to make mistakes and learn from them.

“They engage in these over-parenting behaviours that are dysfunctional to their child’s development,” says Josh LeBlanc, a PhD candidate in management working with Lyons. The researchers cite examples of parents attending job fairs, interviews and salary negotiations with their children, or calling their children’s professors to dispute poor grades.

While LeBlanc acknowledges that it’s a parent’s role to provide emotional and financial support, “It’s becoming dysfunctional. There’s a limit to the amount of parental activity that’s beneficial to development.” Parental relationships that strike a balance between direction and autonomy can benefit adult children as they explore careers, but too much parental involvement can cause children to become dependent on their parents to make decisions and solve problems for them.

Lyons points to the fact that just over 50 per cent of young adults in Ontario between the ages of 20 and 29 live at home, partly because they’re staying in school longer and getting married later in life. “We have a generation of adult children, and parents are facilitating this because they have the means to do so and they have smaller families.”

That support is necessary, he adds, because young adults are having a more difficult time finding employment after graduation than their parents or grandparents did. He cautions against comparing today’s young adults with those of previous generations.

Today’s 20-year-old faces different economic and social challenges than a young adult the same age faced two decades ago, he says, but today’s parents may expect their adult children to have achieved the same goals they did at that age. Retail and food service jobs are common for recent graduates, but some parents may not accept this type of work for a child in his or her mid-to-late 20s without realizing it takes longer for young adults to become established in their careers.

“There has to be a recognition that this is the new normal,” says Lyons, adding that helicopter parenting may stem from pressure to raise perfect children who grow up to become perfect adults. “Parents put a lot of expectations on themselves to build these stellar kids.”