The scariest thing about the Easter Egg hunt that was cancelled due to parents’ overly aggressive “help” is that I’m not surprised. I have been to enough decorate-your-bike 4th of July parades, box-car races, and science exhibitions, that I have seen all levels of parental involvement, from four-foot-high moving dinosaurs supposedly made by a third-grader, to book reports with words that I would have to look up.
We’ve been talking about this behavior for years now, with most people labeling these actions as “helicopter parenting,” which basically means over-involvement, but I think we’re ignoring a residual effect of parents jumping over boundary ropes at an Easter Egg hunt: Cheating is OK and so is greed.
You only need to go to one party with a piñata to see this truth: parents pointing their kids in the right direction, crouching around on the outer edges, and scooping up loose Tootsie Rolls and Double Bubble gum flung far in the explosion. We used to go to an annual fall festival and take a hayride to a pumpkin patch. As the tractor slowed down, parents would point out the largest pumpkins to their kids, inciting and instructing them: “See that one Joey, run there, run straight at that one and I’ll be right behind you to pick it up.”
We talk about parents “over-parenting” because they want the best for their kids, but I think much of “over-parenting” is due to the fact that parents want the most for their kids.
I would argue that out-of-control parents at youth sporting events fits the greed and cheating model more than the “helicopter parenting” umbrella we throw it under. Even in our everyone-gets-a-trophy culture, parents still want their kids to receive the biggest trophy, so biting the ear off the opposing coach, or shining laser pointers in opposing players’ eyes, or the so-common-we-don’t- even-talk-about-it-anymore kids being encouraged to hog the ball—all becomes child’s play; it becomes the norm. Sorry if you disagree, but I call buying the coach a $100 wine-and-cheese basket greed/cheating as well—if the gift’s intent is more about getting in the coach’s good graces than expressing gratitude.
Parents defend their children’s bad behavior, and resist the ramifications from outsiders, in extreme cases like the infamous Haddonfield party, or incidents like this: A friend of mine is a high-school history teacher. He found out that the majority of his AP class cheated on a recent quiz, the week before many of those same students were to be inducted into their school’s honor society. He suggested that none of the cheaters be allowed to attend the ceremony and was inundated with calls from irate parents. None of the parents denied his or her child’s cheating, but all of them thought the teacher’s punishment was too harsh. I’m seeing something greedy there, too: Ignore the cheating and give the reward.
When my kids were little and I threw them traditional birthday parties, there were two moments that made me break into a sweat: when my child would open his or her presents, and when I would cut and serve the cake. I could not handle the party guests crowding in on my kid, demanding their gift be opened next. I developed a game where the gifts would stay in another room, and I would ask a random question, like: Whose birthday is close to Christmas? The person whose birthday was closest to December 25th would go in the other room and choose a gift to bring in to the guest of honor. Here’s the best part: They were not allowed to choose their own present. This caused a nice pause in the frantic fury of gift unwrapping and made each child feel like he or she had their own “moment.”
I did a similar thing with the cake. I’d ask silly questions from simple math to favorite Disney character (“mine, too!”) and my extra reward for all of this patience was that the child would get to choose any part of the cake they wanted. Look, I saw other mothers painstakingly cut sheet cakes in neat, precise rows, as kids screamed for the yellow balloon of icing. I’d rather butcher the cake into a sweet wreck than take the Xanax I’d need to otherwise get through. I tell you all this because what I saw at most parties was parents shrugging their shoulders in acceptance at the gift frenzy, and the quietest kids getting their cake last.
I think we need to differentiate between “helicopter parenting,” which really is over-involvement, and cheating along with greed, which is simply gross. Like I’ve tried to coin “Ramp Agent Parenting” as the answer to helicoptering, maybe we need to think of a term for Tootsie Roll grubbers. Any suggestions?