Parenting Podcast: Helicopter Parents versus a Helicopter View of Parenting

Parenting Podcastby Rabbi Stephen Wise

In this week’s Jewish Parenting Podcast, psychologist Richard Weissbourd explains the difference between being a “helicopter parent” and taking a helicopter view of parenting. You may have heard the term “helicopter parent” to refer to hovering and over-involved parents who take too great a role in their maturing children’s lives. Dr. Weissbourd has a unique perspective in that he is teaching us about raising moral children. By taking a step back, a helicopter view, we can look at our own parenting and see what we’re doing that either helps or hinders our children’s moral development.

When my four year old hits or spills, she knows it’s wrong. At least, I see that she feels bad and regrets what she’s done right away. I can’t be sure if her reaction is because she knows the difference between right or wrong, or if she knows her action will get a disapproving reaction from her parents. In fact, there’s nothing morally wrong about spilling, but it gets a similar reaction to hitting! My job as a parent is to notice this and then explain to her the reason behind my reaction.

As kids grow, their sense of morals continues to develop, and they can articulate much better the feeling and thinking behind their actions. Rather than hovering and then swooping in to correct a situation, say, when siblings are arguing over a toy, it is so important to engage the children in their own problem solving. As Dr. Weissbourd points out, kids are moral beings and they need to work out these dilemmas to develop their sense of morality. That is why I am so fascinated in bar/bat mitzvah age students. Today we celebrate with an aliyah to the Torah and a party with family and friends. Traditionally, a child of this age is now the age of majority, able to participate in a minyan (community of prayer) or even a beit din (Jewish legal court). I think it is because at this age moral development has come to a sort of crossroads.

Synagogue youth group is a unique and outstanding environment for kids to suss out ethical dilemmas in the company of their peers and some trusted adults like a youth advisor or rabbi. Recently at our synagogue, we discussed the value of pidyon shvuyim, redeeming captives, comparing and contrasting the scenarios of Yoni Netanyahu and Gilad Shalit. We discussed the question: What is the value of one person’s life? We looked at all of the angles of each case while they went back and forth trying out their own moral compass in the face of real events.

We don’t have to look to the headlines or history for real ethical dilemmas. As a chaperone at the synagogue and on trips, I also see young adults sharpening their moral senses. They have a chance to make all their own decisions, and I see them weigh the consequences as they decide to whom they’ll talk, how to interact with strangers, when to take a leadership role and when to hang back and let the group take a the lead.

Rather than hovering over our maturing children, what we can do as parents is to help them take a step back out of a situation and see all of the complexities. Dr. Weissbourd suggests, “Listen carefully, without quickly judging, to your child’s moral questions and dilemmas. Express your own values, and connect them to your child’s experiences and interpretations.” Listening requires that we do a little tzimtzum, or contraction, of our own selves, making room for our children to become their own moral beings.

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Rabbi Stephen Wise is the Rabbi for Shaarei-Beth El Congregation in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.

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