Author begging her teenage son to please, for the love of Pete, stop leaning over the flimsy wet Colombian rope. Photo by Walter Ballesteros.

What Exactly Is Behind Helicopter Parenting?

My husband is an ethics officer of a large Fortune 500 company. He regularly conducts investigations of ethical misconduct, and while he isn’t shocked by the college admissions scandal, he finds it fascinating.

Most of my husband’s cases involve smart people doing stupid things for a little extra edge or a little extra money. They risk their career, their personal relationships, their reputation for a few thousand bucks, or a roll in the hay with a subordinate. Why?

He’s always dying to ask these poor wrong-doers, “How did you think this was going to end?” He figures they were those kids in school who expended enormous effort devising schemes to cheat on a math test, when they could’ve put that same effort into studying and gotten the same result. They are entrepreneurial in a sense. Innovative.

From his viewpoint, he is most interested in how they got caught. What or who first tipped off the feds? There is always some small thread sticking out of a sweater that gets someone’s attention. You start pulling on that thread and things begin to unravel. Maybe it was the photoshopped kid who couldn’t actually play football. That was just one grift too far. After all, folks pay attention to the football team.

Or maybe it was simply the cooperation of the “consultant” at the center of the scandal who now seems to be singing like a canary and spilling the dirt on all his wealthy clients. The feds have recordings of phone conversations. Did the canary agree to wear a wire? If so, why? What made him break?

My husband envied the investigators. This would have been a fun case to pursue. Most of my husband’s cases involve either sex or money. Those two things motivate the crime. But this fraud is different. It stems from parents wanting to “help” their kids.

Is that why it’s so fascinating? Because we all understand it and to some degree have done it?

I have my own pet theory about why my generation engages in helicopter parenting. We certainly didn’t learn this from our parents, those come-what-may, all-kids-eat-dirt, be-home-when-the-streetlights-come-on fatalists. Our parents didn’t care about our ACTs or our self-esteem. They didn’t worry about where we were every minute of the day. It wasn’t that they were heartless. There was just too much ironing to do.

Seriously, older generations didn’t attempt to manipulate the course of a child’s life for one very good reason: why try to control something that was clearly uncontrollable? I really don’t want to go into dead babies, but honestly, that’s the crux. Preemies died. Kids were killed in farm accidents or car crashes. Sickness could be fatal. When we were kids, we knew if we didn’t suffer some calamity, we were lucky.

Technology, medical advances, and the federal government changed all that. Pasteurized milk, fluoridated water, lead testing, the March of Dimes, smoke alarms, vaccines, prenatal vitamins, car seats, safety caps on aspirin, electrical outlet covers, Amber alerts, stop arms on buses, graduated driver’s licenses.

To a certain degree, this vast generational undertaking of decreasing risk worked. Life was better for kids. Childhood mortality declined from 18.2% in 1960 to 4.3% in 2015.

But this must be where things went haywire in the parenting handbook. We got overconfident. As childhood survival rates increased, we saw that our vigilance and intervention could demonstrably improve the odds for our children to survive and thrive. So we engaged in a kind of parental power grab. If we could control the risks our children were exposed to, what else could we effect? Nutrition, education, athleticism, social ability, sexual and gender identity. The list goes on. And at the end of the day, our kid’s success was a notch in our belt.

I used to think I was an “umbrella parent.” I could offer a little bit of shelter from the storm but everyone was still going to get wet. Yet as the kids got older, there were accidents, injuries, hospitalizations, experimentations, and all manner of terrifying scenarios beginning to play out. I know I crossed the line. I climbed into the cockpit of the Apache, so to speak.

I have ugly stories about it. My four sons developed surface-to-air missiles and used them effectively. And shooting me down often worked out for the better. Some instances were amusing, like this one:

One of my sons, a young actor in his youth, participated in film and theater while in college. He was leading a campus tour when the mother of a young prospectus in the group approached him and said, “I run Chicago’s largest casting agency. I have a part for you if you want it.” My son replied that in fact he was an actor.

With this mom’s help, my kid managed to land an agent. He eventually nabbed a small part in Shameless, the show starring the husband of Felicity Huffman, who by the way hasn’t really been mentioned in this whole admissions scandal. (If he helped his wife, he’s culpable. If he was too checked out to know about it, he’s also culpable.)

Of course I was thrilled for my kid. “After graduation, you should take a year and go audition in L.A.” I suggested on numerous occasions.

“I don’t want to be an actor,” he said on numerous occasions. “It’s a hobby.”

Long story short, his part on Shameless got cut, he completely ignored my “suggestion” regarding L.A., and now that renegade is working for a non-profit helping undocumented individuals seek asylum in the U.S. Sheesh.