Executive Function and Helicopter Parenting

When children are young, parents do almost everything for them. Young children are not capable of organizing, self-checking, or thinking flexibly about the challenges they face.  As children get older and become developmentally ready to tackle the executive function demands of life, they take on increased responsibility, eventually emerging as full-fledged adults.

This process is far from smooth. When teenagers begin to take on the executive function demands of the world, there are sure to be fits and starts and a few outright disasters. It can be hard to watch as a parent, or a teacher, and sometimes it might seem easier to just keep doing everything for the student. This desire is at the root of the rise of the “helicopter parent.”

Helicopter parents are parents who monitor every little thing in their childrens’ lives, from homework and extracurricular activities to socializing and beyond. While the motivation may be understandable (no one likes to watch someone they love fail or struggle), the long-term consequences of helicopter parenting can have a negative impact on the development of executive function.

Research shows that students who have more unstructured time develop strong executive function abilities later in life. Why is that? Shouldn’t students who spend more time playing sports, participating in clubs, and getting all of their homework done on time be better at executive function tasks? Not if the student has no choice in the matter. Students develop their executive function abilities when they are able to create their own structures and strategies to pursue goals that are personally meaningful to them. This process does not happen in a vacuum, and parents are important partners in their children’s lives. But autonomy and self-awareness are crucial for this process.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult, makes a passionate case against the dangers of helicopter parenting. Check out her TedTalk below.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director