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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

helicopter parent

(2000’s | academese (education) | “overprotective parent,” “one who keeps kids on a short leash,” “nervous nellie”)

I didn’t encounter this expression until fairly recently, so I was surprised to find a number of instances from the 1990’s on LexisNexis. It’s usually credited to Jim Fay and Foster Cline, a teacher and psychiatrist, creators of a philosophy of raising children known as Love and Logic. Fay used the word in a book title, “Helicopters, Drill Sergeants, and Consultants” (1994); the three categories, as you might have guessed, are three types of parents. That was not the first recorded use by any means; “helicopter parent” turned up in Newsweek in 1991 as an example of teachers’ slang. In 2004, Fay noted that he had started writing about “helicopter parents” thirty years earlier, although I haven’t found any instances of the term before 1990 or so. We certainly owe the popularity of the expression, if not its origin, to Fay and Cline. When used in the 1990’s, it was invariably glossed. A helicopter parent hovers, supervises every corner of the child’s existence, and swoops down to rescue the child from difficulty, resulting in young adults who can‘t make decisions or deal with adversity. The phrase was much more common by 2005, but a definition was generally offered even then. Responsible writers didn’t feel they could just drop it casually without cluing in readers.

If Fay and Cline didn’t originate the term, another educator did; at first it was used mainly in educational contexts, and generally still is. The term was most commonly applied in its early life to parents of college students, characteristically used by college administrators to describe parents who refused to let their children exercise a little responsibility. But it wasn’t long before it came into more general use to talk about all parents with school-age children — old enough to leave the house and get into trouble. I learned the term from The Simpsons (“Father Knows Worst,” 2009), but it was well and truly current by then; I was behind the curve, as usual. It has spawned a few competitors: I’ve seen “lawnmower parent” (removes obstacles from child’s path) and even “Humvee parent” (defined as “ready to roll over rough terrain and ‘rescue’ my child”). These three terms all refer to fundamentally the same thing, excessive or harmful interference in the child’s life. There are plenty of ways for parents to screw up their kids, and it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with more. What we really need is cute expressions for negligent parents who don’t do enough for their kids. “Absentee parent” is too obvious. “Three-toed parent”? “Blue moon parent”? Help me out here.

We are entitled to wonder how much such oppressive childrearing is due to concern for the children and how much should be chalked up to parents’ amour-propre, or fear of the judgment of their merciless peers. In some communities, parents do seem to be more rivals than anything else. The more you do for your kid, the better parent you are. So do your kid’s homework, take his side against the teacher, pull strings, bail her out when she gets in a jam. Don’t let your kids learn from their mistakes, because making mistakes is in the first place a reflection on you. Self-reliance is a very old strain in the American character (there was an old fellow named Emerson . . . ), but some of us, however indomitable we may be on our own behalf, can’t seem to pass it on to our offspring.

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