Helicopter Parents and Trophy Kids

I heard Lori Gottlieb interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio this morning. Here is the article about which she was interviewed. This idea of not fixing everything for our kids seemed especially timely in light of my last post.

I’m interested too in thinking about our culture’s disdain of the ordinary (as noted in the article, no one wants to be “average”). And yet, there is a sort of pushback in our mainstream culture, against a drive for excellence. It’s sort of a paradox; we tell our children they are special, we say everyone is special, but if everyone is special, then really no one is special! Then if someone aspires to excel in a certain area, we call them arrogant or competitive. And, as Gottlieb notes, if someone is weak in a certain area, we try to discover what is wrong, what external circumstances are standing in their way; and we communicate that no one should be especially weak or especially strong in any distinct area of life.

What do you think – about this or any other issue raised in the article? I’m looking for a stimulating conversation here, folks!


  1. To misquote an old song – “…and the music goes round and round and it comes out bland…”. I’m tying your comments to one of my own more pressing themes – the seeming equating of “disagreement” with “disdain.” We seem to have lost something as a culture in that we no longer have appreciation for opposing points of view, held in a dialogue of high regard and respect. On top of that, we scrutinize, analyze and hold accountable every spoken word, which drives meeker souls inward and dogmatic types outward. And the result seems to be a shelf full of non-offensive, soft-spoken, bland points of view, sandwiched between vocally harsh, opposing bookends.

    • I’ve noticed this, too, Larry. I think of grace as an antidote, though I don’t use the word in a religious way, at least not the way I learned about it.

  2. Perfectly said Larry, great post Julia. @Larry, recall the Onion piece about 104 adults left in the US, it said something about adults being able to listen to an opposing point of view without becoming angry or feeling existentially threatened. And your second point is so critical, our culture now “drives meeker souls inward and dogmatic types outward.” I may lift your terrific words for use in the future if you don’t mind?

    @Julia, I have a response to your wonderful post Rain, just can’t get 20 minutes to get it done. Hopefully this weekend! Will note there is a terrific article in Harper’s this month about the idiocy of work, of striving, of the shackles contrived by our corporate masters to delude us into understanding our worth in terms of being “above average,” “excellent,” etc. It ties with this post better than I can describe off-hand, if you get a chance to read it. Anyway I agree, the messages sent to our children (and ourselves, really) are hopelessly mixed. I don’t think this is an accident. And I think it contributes to our society being so chronically depressed.


  3. I’m with Nnox on this one. I doubt it is a cultural mistake. People that feel empty are really good for business. If people knew they were loved and felt fulfilled in simply being loved, there would be a lot of plastic surgeons, car salesmen, fashion designers, and Joel Osteens out of business. Kids don’t even need parents to tell them how special they are. It is a pervasive lie. My parents sure didn’t tell me that. When I graduated from high school my mother said to me, “You know, Keith, college isn’t for everyone…” But I ended up believing it anyways. I thought I was an artist and that God was going to thrust me into success because I was important and needed in His plan. I quit a decent job because I thought God told me to. I thought that I could somehow control my destiny. I believed in the power of my own intention. Basically, I was an asshole. I was also not particularly artistic, successful, important, or in control. Two years ago I met with a priest who told me in not so many words that I was not special, I was loved. Perhaps the greatest lesson of my life.

  4. At the risk of over-simplifying, is it possible that the push back against excellence is a result of the innate knowledge that “if everyone is special, then no one is”? If I can keep everyone else average, then I and my children pretend to be special.

    Reading this article I thought of two ideas I’ve picked up from my reading. The first, from C.S. Lewis: “No man who bothers about originality will every be original: whereas if you simply tell the truth, without caring twopence how often it has been told before, you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” So we all want to be special (and we do, let’s be honest), but we can’t. How about telling the truth? We’re unique, which is almost synonymous to special. But there’s a fine line that makes a big difference. As this article pointed out, when kids are raised to believe they’re special, “Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.” Uniqueness carries with it less of a hierarchy, in my opinion. As evidence, I can only offer my experience, but the jealousies that often come with the writing territory are usually soothed when I remind myself that I am different from everyone else and so still have my own story to live.

    The second idea is from Parker Palmer. You know I enjoyed Let Your Life Speak, and especially so the chapter about closed doors. Palmer’s message that we can learn as much from our inabilities as our abilities needs to get out a little more. I felt sad for that girl in the article who was trying to convince her parents that she wasn’t good at math—she knew the truth, but the message she was getting from her parents was, We won’t accept less than perfect. “I have had it with perfection,” as a good poet once said.

    My suggestion: Let’s teach our kids to be uniquely imperfect.

  5. Thanks for the thoughts, Jodi. And I”m wondering if the whole conversation about rating myself as “special,” “unique” “individual”, etc. isn’t also a reflection of a narcissitic culture that is pre-occupited with self, self-image, etc. It seems to come back to the question of “my own standing in the group” (or that of my children’s, etc.) Perhaps we need to work at replacing the question “What is my standing in the group?” with “What can I bring to the group/”

    • If nothing else, maybe it’s indicative of a culture that has more time to think about self than most other places in the world.

      I would agree with you that it’s good to end up at the “What can I bring to the group?” question. Would you say that some amount of self-discovery/self-pre-occupation is necessary for finding the answer? Otherwise, you end up with people who are giving what they can’t sustain and so eventually bringing misery to themselves and the group (again, with a nod to Parker Palmer and based on my own experience).

  6. Absolutely – I guess I would see a difference between healthy introspection with a view toward “fit” and purpose and unhealthy self-absorption with a view toward social standing.

  7. I’ll have you know a Mr. Rogers song has been running circuits in my head since I read this post. 🙂

    Yesterday I ran across something else related to this discussion. I’m reading Black Milk, which is Elif Shafak’s quirky memoir about writing, pregnancy, motherhood and post-partum depression, and she comments on how some Turkish mothers are obsessed with eating black caviar during pregnancy because they believe it will increase their babies’ IQs. She asks, “…what will happen to these fish-egg babies in an environment that does not reward individual differences and unusual talents? What kind of irony is it to desire a clever baby, but not be able to acknowledge a creative child.”

    So it would appear that the contradiction isn’t limited to our culture.

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