Money and Relationships

Are We Loving Our Kids Too Much? with Adam Carroll

Updated on March 18, 2020 Updated on March 18, 2020
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Adam Carroll, speaker and author

All good parents love their children and want what’s best for them. But what happens when parents take that concept too far? This is what so-called helicopter parents do. Helicopter parenting can, in some ways, be just as damaging as parental neglect.

Loving a child is never a bad thing; no one is going to argue that. Love comes in many forms and is expressed in millions of ways. And we’ve probably all had those moments where our parents were fussing over us or gushing over us in public or in front of our best friend until we finally said, “Moooom, (or Daaaaaad), you’re embarrassing me!” Even though we complained, in some ways, we liked it. We all want our parents’ attention and approval.

All parents want their children to succeed and do their best to help set their children up for success. Read to them from an early age, give them music and art lessons, pay ridiculous amounts of money to get them into good schools, hire tutors. And some parents take this too far as we’ve recently seen with the Varsity Blues scandals. 

The kids of those parents didn’t even want to be college students; in some cases, they were content being Instagram influencers. And now it’s all blown up in everyone’s faces. Some of these uber helicopter parents are facing prison, and their children have been publicly humiliated.

The Varsity Blues scandal is pretty extreme, helicopter parenting taken to the nth degree. But helicoptering can happen in much more mundane ways and really damage children’s lives.

What is Helicopter Parenting?

The term “helicopter parenting” is a bit like the line of SCOTUS Justice Stewart in a 1964 case about obscenity. Paraphrasing but basically, he said: “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.” This is a more formal definition of helicopter parenting:

A helicopter parent is a parent who pays extremely close attention to a child’s or children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions. Helicopter parents are so named because, like helicopters, they “hover overhead”, overseeing every aspect of their child’s life constantly.

A helicopter mom or dad has good intentions, but by smoothing out every obstacle standing between their precious darlings and success and happiness, what they’re really doing is depriving them of character building and learning opportunities and life skills. The children of helicopter parents cannot function effectively in the real world, the world where their parents can’t control and influence everything around them.

Who are Helicopter Parents?

You might think it’s the ultra-rich who are the worst offenders when it comes to overparenting, but helicopter parents come from all walks of life. Sometimes this overbearing parenting comes from a sense of guilt.

Parents who are divorced or work long hours can overcompensate for the lack of time they have to spend with their kids.

Parents who grew up poor and made it to the middle-class may overindulge their children because they felt deprived of material things as children. And some are the kind of parent who is very high achieving themselves but fear their child isn’t as capable as they are and try to compensate for that in whatever way they can.

I suspect this is what happened in some of the Varsity Blues cases. Many of those parents are wildly successful, and their children clearly pretty spoiled and vacuous. There is no way they were going to get into a prestigious college on their own merits, so the parents paid to make it so. A study has borne this out:

“Helicopter parenting behaviors may also interfere with feeling a sense of competence because such parental actions can convey the message that parents do not have faith in their child’s abilities. Furthermore, when parents solve problems for their children, then children may not develop the confidence and competence to solve their own problems.”

Effects of Helicopter Parenting

The term helicopter parenting first appeared in a book by Dr. Haim Ginott titled Between Parent & Teenager in 1969. This parenting style has always been around but wasn’t particularly mainstream until the early 2,000s.

As such, there hasn’t been a ton of studies on the phenomenon, but there is some research ongoing on how this kind of parental involvement can impact children.

Mental Health

A new study found that the children of helicopter parents showed poor scores for psychological well-being. They were more likely than their peers to use, take prescribed medication for depression and anxiety, and use pain medication recreationally.


Poor-self regulation is one of the primary impacts on a child’s life when they have helicopter parents. The children have difficulty adapting to new situations, including school. This makes them unable to regulate their emotions and behaviors, and they’re more likely to act out, struggle to make friends, and have difficulty with their grades.

Identity Formation

For teenagers, developing an independent sense of self is critical. Teens do this by testing out their capabilities and exploring the world. On their own. Doing so teaches them to deal with the consequences of their choices.

Parental over-involvement hampers this process and damages the child’s self-esteem.

It’s Not All Bad

While some aspects of the helicopter parenting style can backfire, it’s not all bad. This level of parental involvement can help develop close relationships between parent and child because it includes a lot of communication, emotional support, and openness.

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Are You Helicoptering?

Oh, gawd! Are you doing it without even realizing it? How many of these common helicoptering behaviors can you check off the list? 

  • Don’t allow children to make age-appropriate decisions
  • Cleaning an older child’s room
  • Involving yourself in minor conflicts between children and their friends
  • Doing a child’s homework or school project for them
  • Micromanaging a child’s diet and physical activity
  • Constantly calling/texting a child
  • Stepping in to prevent minor failures

Helicopter Parents and Money

This is a financial podcast, not a mommy blog, so let’s look at helicopter parenting behaviors around money.

Money Taboo

Money is a taboo subject and can be a source of stress. Parents who struggle financially often understandably want to keep money worries away from their children. But keeping kids entirely in the dark about money issues the family is facing can cause even more upset for them.

When you don’t understand what’s going on around you, you often imagine all sorts of scenarios. The imagination is a powerful thing, and we often imagine things that are worse than what’s actually happening when we don’t have enough information.

Your kids don’t need to know the nitty-gritty of any financial troubles you’re having, but they should have some age-appropriate information about the situation. Perhaps you’ve lost your job. You can explain that you’re looking for a new job, and while there’s no danger of ending up starving on the street, things will be tight for a while, so the family will need to cut back on spending until things are back to normal.

What About Allowance?

We think kids should get some allowance, but they should have to do things to earn at least part of it. All members of a family have certain responsibilities; keeping the house clean, doing yard work, preparing meals, and doing laundry. Even really small kids can help with simple chores.

Giving kids money in exchange for chores teaches them that money is something that has to be earned; it’s not merely a birthright. Kids and anyone else appreciate things more when they’ve earned them.

What should kids do with their allowance or money received for holidays? We like Adam’s 70/10/10/10 plan.

  • 70% can be spent
  • 10% is saved
  • 10% is invested
  • 10% is given to charity

Adam also advocates for a $500 emergency fund for kids. They must keep an emergency fund containing $500 on hand at all times. If the fund dips below $500, some of the 70% has to be diverted to savings until it’s topped up again.

What kind of an emergency could a five-year-old possibly have? None. The point is to get kids used to the idea of an emergency fund very early on because everyone needs an emergency fund.

Create a Mint account with your kid and teach them how to budget their money.

Betterment offers custodial accounts for parents who want to invest money for their children. Imagine how neat it is for a kid to log into their Betterment account and see their wealth grow as if by magic. Both of these things will give parents opportunities to teach their kids dozens of valuable money lessons.

No With a Reason

No parent can say Yes to everything, so kids hear the word “No” a lot. But give the reason behind the No. Adam gave us an excellent example of this. His kid asked if they could go to Dunkin Donuts. He said no but explained the reason.

It wasn’t the money; he had the $10 to buy donuts. But the family had an outing to a pumpkin patched planned later in the week where they would buy a pumpkin and maybe some cider and donuts.

pumpkin patch

No one can have everything, so saying no to Dunkin gives them more money for the outing. And which of the two is more memorable?

Children are going to eat plenty of donuts in their lives, but how many times will they get to go to a pumpkin patch with their family? Experiences make us happier than things. 

Set Expectations

I suppose the opposite of helicopter parents is the sink or swim parents. The kid turns 18, and without warning, their bags are packed, and they’re on their own. Adam’s dad explained that for four years of college, he would pay a decreasing percentage of his tuition costs each year. After four years, he would pay nothing. If Adam wanted to continue his education, he would be on his own.

But dad didn’t say this the day Adam left for college. He knew well ahead of time and could, or could not make the appropriate plans when the time came. Fair warning is required, but all that is needed.

How Not to Be Helicopter Parents

No parents want to end up with spoiled, entitled monsters for children who are entirely unable to navigate life for themselves. How can you make sure your kids feel loved but also grow up to be capable, functional adults? I let Adam tell you because I think he summed it up beautifully.

The four words your kids should hear from you most often are I love you and no.

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Pretty simple, really.

Show Notes

Succeed Faster:  Adam’s site to help you build a bigger life.

Broke, Busted and Disgusted:  Adam’s upcoming documentary about student loan debt.

Candice Elliott - Senior Editor
Candice Elliott is a substantial contributor to Listen Money Matters. She has been a personal finance writer since 2013 and has written extensively on student loan debt, investing, and credit. She has successfully navigated these areas in her own life and knows how to help others do the same. Candice has answered thousands of questions from the LMM community and spent countless hours doing research for hundreds of personal finance articles. She happily calls New Orleans, Louisiana home-the most fun city in the world.
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