“I’m a Reformed Helicopter Mom”

Read an excerpt of "Boy Without Instructions" at RedWhiteandGrew.com

This summer I’m pleased to host some talented women writers who share my own eclectic intellectual interests. This first installment in the series is an excerpt from Penny Williams’ new book, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD.

FTC disclosure: a courtesy link to the book is provided via my Amazon Affiliate account at the end of this post.*

Hi. My name is Penny Williams… and I’m a helicopter mom.
Excuse me, I was a helicopter mom. I worked very hard to reform this behavior and relinquish my pilot’s license. I hate flying anyway!

By definition, a helicopter parent is: “a mother or father that hovers over a child; an overprotective parent.”

Yep, that was me alright. I was a master hoverer. My son, Ricochet’s, ADHD counselor had been harping at me about this for quite some time.

“You need to let him fail at some point,” she always said — firmly, but with compassion.

“You need to step back, let Ricochet do whatever he can or will, at whatever success level comes with it, and then experience the natural consequences.”

You want me to let my child fail?!

Her suggestion to let my child be unsuccessful certainly fell on deaf ears the first six months she tried to convince me it was a requirement. I didn’t even try to refute it. To engage in conversation about it would have acknowledged such words were uttered, and I was not ready to hear that yet. I pretended she never suggested such a wicked thing.

I then debated this behavior modification proposal with her for at least another six months. I wasn’t ready to accept that the best course of action for my son might actually be to sit back and watch him fail, but I couldn’t resist the debate any longer.

“How does letting Ricochet fail help his already poor sense of self?” I’d argue.

“If I can help him, why wouldn’t I?” I’d ask from deep within my big momma heart.

“Isn’t it at the essence of a parent’s job to not let their kids fail? Aren’t I supposed to be his protector?” I’d plead.

Sitting on my hands, biting my tongue, and watching my child fail went against my very nature. I was a worrier by both genetics and environment. I’ve always had high anxiety, especially in social situations. My number-one motivator most of the time is fear — fear of failing, fear of being less than perfect, fear of being judged by others — we’re all driven by fear to some degree, but arguably a lesser degree than I am. I cringed at the thought of my child feeling physical pain. I could be driven to tears imagining how my kids felt when their feelings were hurt. Thinking the unthinkable, kidnapping or worse, sent me straight into an anxiety-fueled tailspin. Why would I let that happen if I could prevent it? My job as momma is to protect my children, to stand firm between them and harm.

Admittedly, I had taken that philosophy too far. I was a textbook hoverer. I over-thought every scenario. I weighed the pros and cons days in advance for every situation there was even the slightest possibility might surface. I tried to anticipate the severity of the risk. For heaven’s sakes, my children did not go outside to play at all the five years we lived on the mountain, because several times a year we had black bears roaming our property and traipsing up to our door. The bears never approached when we were outside. They were only around our house approximately 1/50th of the year. Those odds weren’t bad, and yet I focused on the what-ifs until the thought of letting them outside seemed like child neglect or potential manslaughter by bear or something. What was I thinking? Well, I was over-thinking, and that’s a hallmark of a helicopter parent.

Our counselor’s point, though, and it was a good one, was not to push Ricochet aside and let him fail or let him get hurt. Her point was that I had to teach him the skills to work around his ADHD, and then step back and let him find his own way from there. Not only would that force him to step up and do the work, but it would also give him the breathing room to develop his own compensatory measures for ADHD. After all, kids are most successful when they do things their own way? Aren’t we all?

At some point after receiving this advice numerous times over a year, I accepted the reality that I was a helicopter mom, interfering in my children’s lives entirely too much. Of course, it was my job to care for them, but it was not my job to do everything for them and foresee every danger. I couldn’t put them in a bubble and lock out the world so they didn’t experience hurt. Hurt is a part of life, and mistakes teach us valuable lessons and make us stronger. Babying them could actually make them weak.

That revelation bears repeating: Babying my children could actually make them weak.

That awareness was profound.

My hovering over Ricochet’s every move, poised and ready to cushion his fall or prevent emotional pain, was holding him back. It also fueled arguments and power struggles. I was setting the fuse for repeat explosions.

There was a measurable improvement after I relinquished my pilot’s license and stopped hovering (most of the time). Leaving Ricochet to discover and try led him to figure out how to be more like his peers in the ways he needed to be, when possible. He was happier doing things as his peers did, I guarantee. I consistently had to sit on my hands, zip my lips, and let him try.

My son was a happier kid after I quit hovering over and around him all the time. Warrior Girl, Ricochet’s older sister, was happier, too (although she quickly became aware of how much Momma really did to keep her on track). And I am certainly happier not feeling like we have to worry so much about the fate of our littles. While I have never had a broken bone (knocking fiercely on my wood desk right now), it is a part of childhood. Sorry, Mom, I have to say this, I likely didn’t have this “childhood injury” because my mom was overprotective, too. Where do you think I inherited the tendency?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? Okay, let’s not get carried away, I’m not ready to go that far yet! I could relinquish a lot of control without risking safety, and that’s just what I did.

Author Penny WilliamsA self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is the author of the Amazon best-seller about her parenthood in the trenches, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD. She is also the creator of the award-winning website, {a mom’s view of ADHD}, and a frequent contributor on parenting a child with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications. Look for her second book, What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD, in late 2014. Follow Penny and get updates about Ricochet at BoyWithoutInstructions.com.


*Basically, if you purchase the book mentioned in this post via Amazon.com–in print or via Kindle, then I receive a teeny-tiny bit of money for the transaction. Mostly, however, I include the link to help you locate the book. 


  1. I am very interested to hear what other parents have done to stop hovering and teach independence. My anxiety and struggle with the what-if monster make it hard for me to step back. That, and the fact that my son is so often mistreated by his peers.

    • What I most appreciate about your post today is that you demonstrate one doesn’t flip a switch and overnight cease to hover. It’s a gradual process and takes time.

  2. Great article, Penny. Thanks for raising my awareness. Recently at the end of the school year, I asked our first grade teacher what we could do to help prepare our son for second grade. She said, “Help him achieve a higher level of autonomy.” Yep, it’s time I get organized and clear about how to help my son build a sense of independence, and how to learn from failure (I’m still figuring this out for myself!)

    • It’s so tough, Jami! Our natural instinct as a mother is to shield and protect our children. At your son’s age, providing choices and letting him start making some decisions from there is a great place to start. Also, letting him do things for himself, even if it will be messier and much more time consuming. That one takes a lot of mindfulness for me! 🙂

      • Dreaming BIG here because it would involve a major shift in how we “read” parenting behaviors, I’m increasingly fond of the idea of shifting from negative “helicopter parenting” to thinking and talking about “scaffold parenting,” which is more inclusive. After all, ome kids really do need more support (emotional, physical, academic) but the trick is to know when to pull back and in what parts–and when to support parents who DO need to stay more involved.

        I also think the word “helicopter” has some shaming connotations that present a barrier for parents who have a legitimate need to “hover.” I also think it might be easier for educators and other stakeholders in a child’s well-being to frame the “overprotectiveness” as “too much scaffolding.” It sounds less judgmental and *might* breed less defensiveness.

        Really enjoyed this today, Penny. Thanks for your post.

        • I hear you on that! To me though, a change in the term doesn’t necessarily mean a change in the behavior. That term definitely removes the negative connotations though.

          • I recall vividly having to deal with helicopter parents of college freshmen almost 20 years ago at UT Austin’s summer orientation program. That was the first time I ever heard the term.

            Now, working with parents of high need kids who are fumbling for ways to help their kids and feeling the shame and sting of phrases like “helicopter parents” and even “tiger moms” I have *such* a different perspective on the good, the bad, and the ugly of scaffolding. 😉

  3. My question is simple: define “fail.” Am I obligated, as a homeschooling mother, to step back, give my child his work for the day, and whatever remains uncompleted earns a failing grade? Or, watching my little playing soccer, is it acceptable to corral him away from the river, or from two fields away when the coach doesn’t notice he’s gone? I’ve been asked if I could allow my child to fail. I genuinely don’t understand the question. I do my best to stay in the background. But is it really a good idea to let my kid, who runs off at the slightest opportunity, out to play without supervision when we live mere yards from a busy street? What is the expectation of “let them fail” – or is that going to end up being the next catchphrase for “those parents who do more than I want to do”?

    • The context of our therapist telling me to let my son fail was that he has a developmental disability (ADHD), and needs to learn to create strategies that work for him. If I’m always swooping in to help, when does he learn to help himself. Of course, this doesn’t apply to situations where safety is concerned.

      • I’ve been asked the same – but by a social worker, again in the context of having a child who may have ADHD. But nobody has ever given me any way to understand the question or directive. What does “let them fail” mean from a practical standpoint? You’ve been given the directive to let your child fail. What does that mean? How do you do that? Is it as simple as not managing their social interactions, or is it something far more complex that I’m not grasping?

        I swear, I’m not trying to be a pill, or shoot holes in the concept. I just genuinely do not understand! ;.;

        • I think it depends a lot on the age, which goes back to the scaffolding thing I brought up earlier. Younger kids–especially 2E kids or kids with learning issues that cause social issues and/or come with social stigmas–need more, more, more of all kinds of scaffolding and it’s emotionally and physically draining on parents and kids.

          As for what the cues are re: developmentally appropriate failures, I think the general guidelines (by age) for developmental readiness are good benchmarks. No, not every 6 year old is gonna act like a 6 year old AT age 6, but the 6 year old markers are where you want to start to try to pull down the scaffolding. For many kids who are high needs, it won’t work at first. But one tests to for the kid to either 1) pass straight up or 2) fail but still be emotionally resilient. If a kid loses it emotionally, one puts the scaffolding back in place and circles back to the issue in a few weeks or months and tries again until it does. Near the end of age 6, if they’re still lagging, have a chat with a specialist to see if there’s a problem.

          That 5-to-7 brain shift that all kids have will resolve many issues–not all–but a good many even in high needs kids.

          • Oh, and I should add that because of the nature of high needs parenting I really think that a referral to a therapist for the parent to secure support and their own emotional scaffolding is critical but all too frequently ignored. There is a tendency to *blame* parents for being “too ______” (fill in the blank) but very little emphasis in the medical community on making sure the parents needs for support and encouragement are being met. Parenting is a relationship between at least two people and both people deserve support in a high-stress situation.

            Therapy for the parents won’t solve the kids’ own problems but may very well alleviate pressure within the family unit. And that is a positive for everybody.

            (Disclosure: I see a therapist for support with various “sandwich generation” issues, including parenting. I haven’t been in a few weeks, but just knowing she’s there and completely on my side is a comfort. Just FWIW)

            • Incredibly useful discussion. I LOVE the idea of “providing scaffolding” to describe what we do as parents. The scaffolding frame is more in alignment with the intention – to provide support, protection and gentle guidance. Thank you! Is there a particular resource you’d recommend for getting a handle on general developmental readiness guidelines?

              • They are a little old-fashioned (written in the ’70s) but I’m still partial to the Louise Bates Ames books. Here’s one for 8 year olds: http://amzn.to/1p10qoh

                I find that parents with kids who are asynchronous work out of 2 or 3 books at once. For example, an 8 year old may have some traits of a 9 year old as well as maybe a 6 or 7 year old.

                In addition, there are the (free) CDC guidelines: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/middle.html

                I like the CDC guidelines because they tend to run in “clusters of years,” like 6 to 8 or 3 to 5.

                • Oh, and what I dig about the CDC clusters is that it shows an 8 year old behaving like a 6 year old on some fronts isn’t just completely “off the rails” even though it may feel like that to a parent. There’s wide variance in human behavior from nature and nurture alike–neurodiversity even, and the groupings suggest that without coming out and saying it.

            • Yes! Parents of challenging and special needs kids are under an enormous amount of stress and need the extra support. Not just the support, but the neutral, not emotionally-invested perspective.

          • Exactly! Well, articulated.

            At the time we were having this discussion with our therapist, it was mostly about school work. Stop micro-managing academics and see what he can do on his own, and let him have natural consequences. The problem was, he was in third grade, but the maturity of a 1st grader, at best, so he really didn’t care if he had a failing report card.

            In a nutshell, she was trying to get me to step back a bit, and let him experience some natural consequences. I had a hand in EVERYTHING, so Ricochet felt no natural consequences.

            • ” The problem was, he was in third grade, but the maturity of a 1st grader, at best, so he really didn’t care if he had a failing report card. ” <–That is so insightful and a great illustration of learning to meet a kid "where they are," Penny.

  4. This line is one that stood out for me from this post: “After all, kids are most successful when they do things their own way? Aren’t we all?” I think that saying parents should let kids fail sounds too negative. What we need to do is offer ideas and talk through some available choices, but let the child make and follow through on a choice. Let the consequences occur and then help your child observe the cause and effect, and repeat the cycle of “what can you try now?” People learn through experience – at all ages. Helicopter parenting deprives kids of necessary experiences and leaves them frustrated and insecure in their ability to solve their problems. Let them see that trial and error is a valid approach to improving things in your life, so long as your trials are intelligently planned.

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