The Perfect Storm
Helicopter Parents, Narcissism and a Secular Culture
A few years ago, one of the popular new internet magazines published an article titled, “Are we raising a generation of helpless kids?” It’s a good question, and it has been asked by a lot more people since this was published.
The article is full of important truthful observations. There really is such a thing as helicopter parents, and they really are doing a great deal of damage to their children.
There are all sorts of anecdotes that most any of us could add to the list in the article. Unfortunately, some of the anecdotes will be personal, because many of us pointing out the problems perpetrated some of the excesses. Current parents (mostly born after 1964, the cutoff year between the Boomer and Buster generations) waited longer to marry and have smaller families than at any time in US history. Since we don’t have as many kids, we can focus more attention on the ones we have. (I don’t fit the mould…I have four kids, but the average for parents in my age group is just below two kids, and for the generations below mine, just over one.)
So how do we raise helpless kids? Some experts put much of the blame on instant gratification. This is true to a degree, but it is not the whole truth. Greed, narcissism, and deep-seated desire for complete autonomy are probably bigger factors in our current culture. You can trace these things back to the Garden of Eden. It was the idea of autonomy (literally, ‘law unto oneself’) that got Eve and Adam in trouble. Of course, one could argue that greed is a simple function of instant gratification, but I think there is an important additional factor to blame: Narcissism. And narcissism is very different, involving self-worship over simple hedonism.
Is all this the fault of the current generation of young parents? Hardly. There have been bad parents, both helicopter parents and neglectful parents, for a long time. The story is told that Douglas MacArthur’s mom Pinky moved with him to West Point, and took an apartment near the campus so she could watch him with a telescope. That was 1899. And D.H. Lawrence famously offered back in 1918: “How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.”
There are broader implications to the problem for believers. We fault the, “you’re special” message many send to our kids, and rightly so. But we mustn’t miss the gospel implications of this message. Our culture tells us that our problems are external to us and the solution is on the inside. But the gospel teaches us the opposite: our problems are internal and the solution is alien to us. We have a tremendous problem of unregenerate church membership in our country, and one of the reasons why is because we’ve told our kids so often that they haven’t sinned, but simply made a mistake; they aren’t bad people, just caught in bad circumstances. But scripture clearly says the problem (sin) is in us, and the solution (Christ and His righteousness) are clearly outside us.
Education experts often point to the idea of external vs internal motivation- saying one of the problems that helicopter parents create is a lack of any internal motivation. This is certainly a factor, but not really new. I’ve been pointing this out in higher education for twenty years or more. Students used to rely on themselves and were self-learners. They’d walk in to a college class, expecting the professor to be somewhat aloof, and understand it was up to them to read the textbook, attend the lectures, and spend the necessary time to digest and critically examine the information they’d gained and form new thoughts and ideas from it. Now they come to class, plop down in a chair, gaze at the professor with a, “teach me…I dare you” look on their face, and they don’t lift a finger of work in many cases. Read the textbook? How dare you ask them to do that! “I paid my money and I want my A!”
One of the other ideas popular in conservative circles is, a child must do something special in order to be special. I partly agree. It is indeed necessary to have a skill set, or know something, or be able to do something beyond the mundane to be considered special. Where this idea falls short, I think, is in the Big Picture. The bigger problem isn’t that they aren’t doing anything special, but we aren’t teaching them the importance of doing small things, and then compounding that error by making the source of their special-ness only the things they do rather than their position as a creature that bears the image of God.
Want proof? If people in this culture could really see others as image bearers of God, we wouldn’t have the holocaust of abortion, we wouldn’t have systemic racism, and no one would protest the Second Amendment because nobody would be getting shot, just to name three.
How many serious life issues could we avoid if we taught our kids the importance of small things like kindness, gentleness, patience, and self-control? We miss this in a secular culture (of course) and thus try to assign special-ness to other factors, such as what we can do. Want proof again? Look how much our society will pay somebody who can hit a baseball 400 feet. Or maybe worse, we tell them they are special simply because they are. An example of that is justification by death (sola morte if you need a Latin term). If you ask many why their family member is in heaven, their answer will consist of something that boils down to, “because they are dead.”
And even when we get the reason for being special right, we focus often on the creature rather than the Creator; accepting the humanistic rather than the theistic solution to the problem. We need to teach our kids that they are special, but we also need to throw in the little part about them being sinners and deserving of eternal punishment. That little inconvenient factoid tends to throw a wet blanket over narcissistic tendencies, at least when it is believed by the recipient. Kids are special, but they all have the same problem: they are sinners at the root. It isn’t hard to find empirical evidence for that. How many of you had to teach your child to lie?
Happiness as a central goal is a huge problem. Maybe the biggest of all. One of the defining events in ministry for me was a meeting I once had with a woman in my church in St. Louis to whom I had been assigned as a family deacon. She had chosen to abandon her husband and one-year-old daughter for more worldly pursuits. When confronted with the sin she was choosing to embrace, her response was, “God wants me to be happy.” (I’m serious. She really said that.) My deacon colleague who was with me quickly pointed out to her that no, “God wants you to obey,” and that her happiness (really joy) would come from obedience, not fleshly pursuits. She didn’t repent. Happiness was more important to her than obedience. I’m guessing she’d been taught that as a child.
One of the ironic results of this kind of thinking is the Hedonist paradox. The Hedonist paradox works like this- If you live for pleasure you will either find it or you won’t. If you find it, you will become bored. If you don’t find it, you will become frustrated. That would be funny if it weren’t so destructive in real life. Happiness as the ultimate goal never works.
Should we let our kids fail? Absolutely. Teaching them to deal with failure is MUCH more important than protecting them from the bad feelings which come with failure. We need to fail, and more importantly, we NEED to feel bad about it when we do. This is one reason why sin is such a non-issue in our culture today…because we’ve made feeling bad about being bad a bigger sin than the sin itself.
Did you know that many kids now never learn to ride a bike, because their parents are too worried about them falling off? Time Magazine says it this way- “Death by injury has dropped more than 50% since 1980, yet parents lobbied to take the jungle gyms out of playgrounds, and strollers suddenly needed the warning label ‘Remove Child Before Folding.’ “ Falling off a bike hurts, but we learn a lesson from it that can’t be taught any other way. Losing a ball game, not being a starter, or middle-school politics are all unpleasant experiences. But protecting your child from going through them will make for an unpleasant life.
This is not easy. It’s just one more example of learning from our mistakes, but this time, it’s our kids who suffer from our bad decisions, not us.
J B Boren has been married to Jennifer (recently named CHS principal) for 28 years and has four kids, Will (23, who works in inside sales for the San Antonio Spurs), Brice (23, a mechanical engineer at Lockheed-Martin in Orlando), Callie (19, a rising sophomore University Scholar at Baylor), and Ryan (18, a 2018 graduate of CHS and rising freshman at Baylor).
The family moved to Canyon in 2007 when JB was appointed Dean of the Wayland Baptist campus in Amarillo. Prior to that, the family was in Albuquerque for four years, and spent the previous ten years in St. Louis where JB was Director of Sports Medicine and Chair of Natural and Health Sciences at Missouri Baptist University. JB grew up in Kerrick, went to high school in Stratford (senior of ’82!), and has a BS from Texas Tech (’87), an MS from Baylor (’88), and a PhD from Texas A&M (’93).
For fun, JB enjoys CHS sports, shooting and hunting, reading, and probably most of all, handloading.