But it turns out this overbearing lean-in tactic ascribed to recent generations—helicopter parenting–didn’t start with modern generations at all.
The parenting happiness gap is real. The little ones are face-down in devices. The older ones are sucked into social media, having all sorts of sex earlier depending on how you read the statistics. As parents we strive to protect our children from predators, steer them on a path to adulthood that offers a narrow possibility of landing in a good university, all in a world that is Brexit-ing and America First-ing and seemingly crumbling. It’s stressful! What’s a modern parent to do besides hover?
At Quartz, we recently we downloaded more than 4,000 articles from the Journal of Sex Research and the Archives of Sexual Behavior to figure how sexual norms, and the language we use to refer to them has evolved. In the course of that research we stumbled across an article written in 1966 by Hugo B. Beigel, titled “The Parents’ Share.”
The article was about the rise of teen pregnancy and the role that parents play. It was a time before birth control was widely-accepted and parents didn’t even talk about protection with their progeny. The paper cites a mother who found birth control in her daughter’s purse and beat her as result.
It also describes the children as “cuddled and overprotected” without ever being denied anything anything or having to face consequences. And it describes the parenting as such:
Wide circles of today’s upper middle-class are afraid lest their children will not love them if they forbid them anything, or make a demand that does not suit the youngsters’ present mood. Not only do they fail to instill them with a sense of responsibility and self-discipline, but they also resent the meagre discipline which the schools try to impose on their pupils. They dare not haul their children away from the television to have them do their homework, instead they write a note next morning informing the teacher that the child was indisposed. They bargain with the teachers for better school marks, because by giving them the marks which he deserves the villain endangers the boy’s chance to be accepted in a college. In fact, in college itself, mama “speaks” to the instructor who gave her baby—only 19 years old—a C or a D; and if the man proves unrelenting, she goes on to the chairman or the dean. In an affluent suburb, a policeman caught a 15-year-old boy smashing shop windows. Instead of taking him to the police station he delivered him to the mother and, in her presence, gave him a sermon on delinquency. The next day, the mother complained about him: what a trauma for the child to be seen on the street accompanied by a policeman.
Beigel worried that unpleasant consequences (pregnancy) would continue if parents didn’t learn that there’s more to parenthood than just making sure their child is happy. He also lamented how a young woman may actually go out and rebelliously look for sex (“hate-propelled lovemaking”) to prove her independence from hovering parents.
The paragraph, and the entire essay, was familiar. Fifty years later, we’re still advocating, protecting, entertaining and hovering over our kids. Our instincts as parents have remained the same. At least now, though, we talk about birth control.