A Parent’s Love: Bonding or Binding?


Parental love

Can anything be more pure than a parent’s love for a child? Parental love is one form of the character strength “capacity to love and be loved” as defined by Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues, a universally recognized notion. But is it possible for parents to love their children too much?

A spate of recent media stories focuses on parents who hover over their young adult offspring to the detriment of naturally developing autonomy. Particularly problematic is when parents make decisions and plans for their emerging adult children, anticipate hurdles, protect them from the missteps and consequences of their actions, take up the sword to advocate for them, and generally play an active role in managing their emerging adult lives, even from a distance.


Waking Up…

Calling a college student to wake him for his 8:00 a.m. class may seem like a reasonable way to support your child’s success in college, but it won’t help him to learn to do that for himself and may even send him the message that he can’t.

Reading this may make most parents of young adults cringe. I know. I felt pangs of recognition in reading those stories about hovering parents. What parent hasn’t stepped over the line in protecting our children? Hasn’t it been our job for nearly 2 decades to anticipate bumps in their path and smooth the way? How do we navigate the line between bonding and binding? The first step is to notice that there is a line.

What is Helicopter Parenting? Finding the Line

The hovering parenting style was first named “helicoptering” by authors Cline and Fay in their book Parenting Teens With Love And Logic over a decade ago. Psychologist Ken Barber draws a distinction between two types of control—psychological and behavioral.


Helicoptering in

Psychological control is the more damaging, he says, and is characterized by pressure to think, feel and act in ways that have been determined by others.

Psychologically controlled children learn to constantly assess what others expect of them and to behave based on those external expectations, rather than learning to know and act from their own internal motivations and interests. They grow up knowing how to respond to external cues from parents, bosses, significant others, family, friends and colleagues. But true fulfillment eludes them because they don’t develop an internal compass and the self-motivation that goes along with knowing their own passions, interests and strengths.

On the other hand, behavioral control is defined as monitoring children’s behavior through rules and guidelines with the goal of teaching them self-regulation and building self-determination.

The goals of the behavioral control leads to greater autonomy through teaching and letting go.

Changing Parent-Child Relationships

True, hovering and psychological control can hinder the natural development of autonomy, self-efficacy, and self-regulation, not to mention intrinsic motivation. But rather than following the media’s lead and blaming parents for loving too much, we prefer a more nuanced perspective.

The protective instincts of the current crop of helicopter parents seem to arise from a perfect storm of fear (post-Columbine High School massacre and the September 11 attacks) and technological ease (advent of cell phones and email). These social currents are among many that have combined to both magnify the parents’ protective role and make it easier to accomplish.


Teen texting

In studies of college students’ patterns of contact with their parents, psychologist Barbara Hofer recently discovered three interesting patterns:

  1. a higher than expected average of 10.4 contacts per week via a variety of electronic modes
  2. contact initiation was equal between parents and students
  3. a large majority of students expressed satisfaction with the frequency of contacts with parents

This suggests a marked shift towards closer bonds than young adults had with parents in previous generations. Whether this mutual connection suggests healthy development, over-control or more dependence, will require more study. What is clear however, is that this generation of parents is redefining the parent-child relationship in ways that we have yet to understand fully.

The Dance of Autonomy

Where does this leave us? Parents need help and information to support them through a difficult period. Most parents are aware of the need to transition behavior monitoring throughout the child’s developmental stages; gradually shifting tasks, responsibilities, decision making and accountability to the child. They know they need to foster individuality, respect privacy and generally try to play a supportive, rather than controlling, role in adolescence and emerging adulthood, resisting the urge to intervene or take over.

But how? Even with the best of intentions, this period of emerging adulthood is the most challenging time for the “dance of autonomy.” At best, the period beginning with adolescence and moving into emerging adulthood is a dance between parents and their adult children, as they negotiate and navigate the boundaries between intrusion and respect, control and support.

How best to navigate the treacherous waters between autonomy and dependence? With caution and intention.


Two boats off shore

With each challenging situation experienced by their emerging adult, the most autonomy-supportive parents consider before acting, whether they should jump in without being asked, under what conditions and how much? Rather than co-piloting, these parents are in a different boat, trying to navigate the distance between the two boats carefully (often without guidance) to avoid crashing during stormy weather—too close and the boats could damage each other, too far away and they might not notice or be able to help each other in an S.O.S. situation.

This is what we call the “dance of autonomy” between parents and emerging adults.

Some navigational tips:

  1. Read as much as you can about the developmental needs of this period. Most of us stop reading books about parenting once our children are past the terrible two’s.
  2. Ask your adolescent or emerging adult how they might handle the situation without telling them how you would handle it. Listen authentically and offer help, but let them decide whether to accept it.
  3. Let them make small mistakes, experience the consequences and figure out how to recover.
  4. Arrange a mutually agreed upon time to connect when your child is away. Respect their privacy by letting them initiate contact as much as possible.
  5. Learn from parents and children who are successful navigators.

Parents shouldn’t feel guilty for loving too much. But we must seek new ways to educate ourselves about our job to help our children become self-motivated adults, rather than default to our own fears.