The next generation of helicopter parenting is here: intensive parenting, and it has a stronghold on American parents.  The hallmark of this style of parenting is all-too-familiar: it includes a lot of extracurricular activities and scheduled playtime. Intensive parenting takes the emotional side of helicopter parenting and increases the micromanaging by scheduling every spare minute in the child’s day with endless extra-curricular enrichment teaching moments.  It’s equal parts time consuming and expensive, and much like helicopter parenting, can actually rob children of the opportunity to build important life skills.   To get the lowdown on exactly what intensive parenting looks like, and how to avoid crossing the threshold, we chatted with Eirene Heidelberger, a certified parent coach and the founder of GIT Mom (Get It Together, Mom!), a full-service parent coaching firm.

Explain a little about how helicopter parenting has evolved into intensive parenting. I want to call on my experiences and observations on how this change has occurred. Couples are waiting later in life to start a family for several reasons. One reason I’ve observed is greater financial security. A couple is more established professionally, has greater income and the means to provide greater opportunities for their kids. That’s great…in theory. When a couple waits to have a child in their mid-30’s, they may have fewer years to spend with their child compared to a couple who has kids in their early 20’s. So, the idea of “making up for lost time or experiences” becomes very real. FOMO kicks into high gear when we see picture-perfect scenes from other families on social media. We quickly develop a fear of missing out on something better. So, we try to one-up the Jones family.  I’ll talk more about the Jones family a bit later.

We, as a society, have a desire to offer our children more than our parents offered us. It’s not a competition – it’s human nature to be and do better than previous generations. Using child education as an example: parents, compared to a decade ago, have options for every conceivable activity and curriculum. 10 years ago, if your daughter wanted to learn to swim, she could go to the local pool. I know of one family who had a pool in the backyard and paid a high school student to teach their kids the basics. Pretty narrow options, right? Now parents can find private swim clubs and elite, weeks-long swim camps away from home. If your son needed a math tutor, teachers could often accommodate by staying after class a couple of days a week. Today, tutoring is a multi-million-dollar industry and covers everything from basic reading and math skills for toddlers to college exam prep for high school kids. Mom and dad begin feeling inadequate if they don’t offer their children the very best available.

So, how does this address how helicopter parenting evolved into intensive parenting? We developed the helicopter parenting model and perfected it (we didn’t, but let’s pretend we did). What’s next? Let’s adapt the helicopter parenting model to meet the changing idea of starting a family, call it “intensive parenting”, and give that a try! 

What are the key components of intensive parenting? It’s widely accepted that intensive parenting has three main philosophies:

  1. Mothers are the best possible people to care for their children.
  2. Mothering should center around the child’s needs.
  3. Children should be considered delightful and wholly fulfilling.

I recognize this might work in some families. My experiences show will not work in all families.

What are the downsides to intensive parenting? Are there any upsides to having a young child engaged in a lot of activities? It’s referred to as “intensive parenting” for a reason – it’s intense! Mom and dad are racing around to activities and lessons which, let’s face it, are not cheap. The monthly cost of one child’s activities could easily add up to the cost of a monthly car payment! And what if your kid doesn’t like one of the activities you’ve been pouring money into? That’s way too much pressure to put on a child.

Benefits of having a kid engaged in several activities that I’ve witnessed include kids learning how to productively function with minimal supervision. They learn to manage time and understand expectations. This is the start of them becoming self-sufficient. Another benefit is the exposure to a wide array of activities as your kid starts to come into his or her own. A word of caution – don’t let your kid feel obligated to do and try everything!

Is there a way to know when a child’s schedule is too much? Some red flags to watch out for include a pattern of the child complaining about specific things like “I’m bored at lacrosse” or “I don’t like dance class.”  These are opportunities to ask your child “what is it, really?” and address the issue before your child gets totally burned out. When mom and dad find themselves bribing their child to attend. I’m serious, think about the cost of the activity and now add the cost of the incentive! Pick up on non-verbal cues – your child isn’t getting enough sleep, or his eating habits change for the worse. Nothing pains a parent more than their child visibly disturbed so, when your child is crying at the thought of going to the activity, it’s a sign he is maxed out and time for you to step in. When the cost of the activities becomes a bona fide financial burden to the family it’s time to have a serious conversation about which extracurricular activities your child actually cares about pursuing and drop those he’s not. When mom or dad are trying to live out their childhood dreams through their child when the child clearly doesn’t care to be involved.  This happens more than you think, and way more than it should!

Living in an area where it is the cultural norm to have kids over scheduled puts pressure on parents to keep up.  What words of encouragement do you have for parents who want to resist the temptation? The idea that families comparing themselves to other families drives me nuts. Who cares about “keeping up with the Jones family”?! The Jones family isn’t YOUR family!  You have no way of knowing what’s driving their lives. Focus on your family – meeting your children’s and partner’s needs. A parent with type-A personality may find scheduling time in the day to chill out will help soothe their overall need to manage time (micromanage, really) and mellow them out at the same time!

I’ve never been one to shy away from asking parents blunt questions: “Why are you doing this?” Not “why is your child doing this?” For example: is the goal for your child to try out for the Olympics?  If he loves running track and has set a goal to try out for the Olympics for himself, great! But if YOU have set the goal that he is going to try out for the Olympics, but he’d rather be making art or singing in the choir, that’s unfair. To be clear, do not quash your child’s goal. But don’t ever put pressure to make your goal his goal. Your desire to live vicariously through your child is no reason to force him into all the activities you never undertook or weren’t good at.