Much has been written about the Tiger Mother, and the term ‘helicopter parenting’ appears to be ubiquitous. But what exactly does this mean, and why is there such questioning about the style of parenting adopted globally? Constant, demanding attention on the part of an over-ambitious (and over-anxious) parent is not healthy for children. While they need encouragement to learn and to thrive, children also need space and privacy.
Parenting styles have always differed across cultures, across generations and across social class. Pragmatic reasons drive this. In a family with several children and little money, getting by, making do and being a ‘good enough’ parent must and does suffice. While perhaps not able to respond to their child’s every whim and demand, parenting that has clear boundaries and plenty of love tends to give children the circumstances in which to thrive. Equally children brought up by wealthy and highly educated parents but with little parental contact or emotional understanding can have real problems, best summed up by Virginia Axline’s classic story of the child ‘Dibs’.
In this true case study Axline, a child psychiatrist, describes the work she did over the course of a year with the young 5 year old to whom, to protect his identity, she gives the name ‘Dibs’. Dibs displays disturbing behaviour; he is unable to communicate, is uncooperative, and cannot look anyone in the eye. His high attaining parents wonder if he is ‘mentally defective’ (the book was written in the 1960’s when such a term was not uncommon), and completely fail to recognise that he is in fact highly gifted with an IQ of 168. A previous psychiatrist had told the parents, perhaps confusingly and certainly not tactfully, that it was not Dibs who needed treatment, but them, as parents. Dibs was an emotionally deprived child; the parents responded by filling his play room with toys.
Axline arrives to treat him at the request of his school where he has failed to communicate with peers or teachers. Over the course of a year she allows Dibs to express himself through play, and ‘Dibs in Search of Self’ is the classic text that describes the process of play therapy, as well as describing the core conditions that lie at the heart of psychotherapist Carl Roger’s ‘person centred’ therapy: unconditional positive regard; empathy; and congruence.
So recognising children’s emotional needs is important, but labelling children as in some way ‘defective’ for not meeting the high expectations of ambitious parents can be damaging. Parenting styles differ, and there may be no one right way to bring up children, but remembering those core conditions might go some way in helping parents ensure that their child develops in a full and healthy manner, while also providing the tools to enjoy being a parent. Hovering over them and pushing them to attain may not be the right response. In a global world it is important to recognise and appreciate different parenting styles, but equally to sympathise with parents’ wishes. Parents should not be blamed, but they might need support to learn to relax, and to appreciate their child for who they are, and not who they wish they could be.
As Axline wrote: ‘A child, given the opportunity, has the gift of honest, forthright communication. A mother who is respected and accepted with dignity can also be sincerely expressive when she knows that she will not be criticized and blamed.’