From Director to Encourager: Learning to Cheer from the Sidelines

ID-1003929It’s likely some of you have students who will be on their way to college in a matter of weeks or days. Finally, their first taste of independence (and arguably the greatest milestone for their parents as well)!  So, how are you feeling about it? If you (or someone you know) has a college freshman about to start school, this post is for you!


I remember the first time I (Arlyn) heard the term “helicopter parent.” It was at my daughter’s college freshman orientation, where they separated parents and students into different rooms and gave us each a good talking-to. There they told us, in no uncertain terms, that helicopter parenting would be detrimental to our students’ success in college.

It’s pretty easy to imagine. A young adult is off to the real world—college or the work force—ready to make his or her mark in life. As he does, there is a helicopter hovering over him, the pilot barking advice through a megaphone. The copter sweeps in for closer views at times. Other times, it pulls away slightly but it is always a very real presence, with the whirl of its blades never too far away.

Our children’s generation has seen the rise of helicopter parents more than any other.. As they hover, they’re always advising and intervening, enabling and rescuing, offering opinions and sometimes outright manipulating. Why? Generally speaking, the reasons include “to be involved in my child’s life,” to “help,” and to “be an advocate.” Good intentions—but when they start to work against our ultimate parenting objectives, these efforts can actually become counterproductive and downright detrimental. Employers and school and college counselors are witnessing it in droves.

“Millennials have had helicopter parents who have protected them,” says Dan Jones, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. “They haven’t had the opportunity to struggle. When they come to college and bad things happen, they haven’t developed resiliency and self-soothing skills.”[i]

Let’s back up and identify why this is such a problem today, since our parents’ generation didn’t suffer from it as much. Theirs was (again, generally speaking) more a generation of self-sufficiency—of parents and their adult children living their own lives. This, however, is the generation of highly involved parenting. This is the generation whose fathers are in the Lamaze classes and the delivery rooms, whose parents are at every ball practice, and some of whose moms (or dads) give up lucrative careers to take on the full-time career of parenting. And, they give it every bit as much effort and excellence as their corporate careers! Thus, was born the performance parent.

These involved parents serve on the committees at the preschool and bring cupcakes to every party, they make their kids’ beds and pick up after them, they sometimes DO their kids’ homework, and they make every personal effort they can to help their kids make the team, earn a 4.0, get the job …

So, guess who’s having a little trouble letting go when Junior goes off into the real world? (Hint: It’s not Junior!) Just check the Facebook posts of parents who are readying to launch their teen and you’ll see what I mean!

Young children need their parents A LOT. They need us to interpret the world for them, help them make decisions, recognize and avoid danger, choose the right kinds of friends, and know when to work and when to play. That being said, our role is an evolving one. In fact, our goal should be to eventually work ourselves out of a job! Well, sort of.

When our kids were little, we put training wheels on their bikes, and then took them off as they demonstrated increased strength, balance, and confidence. That’s how we should be approaching the teen years. We go from holding them on the bike with both hands, to keeping one hand on the seat, to letting them ride alone with training wheels, to taking off the training wheels and cheering like crazy from the sidelines. That’s what being a “chief encourager” is all about.

Going from director to chief encourager is one of the biggest challenges for parents during the years leading up to and including the launch. And truthfully, it can be a big challenge for teens as well (although they probably won’t admit it). Change isn’t easy for any of us. But if teens are going to be successful, confident adults, they need to be able to operate independently. If you haven’t started operating as your teen’s chief encourager (rather than pilot or director), it’s time to start practicing now! You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how your teen rises to the occasion as you gradually let go.

This blog post was adapted from Parenting for the Launch: Raising Teens to Succeed in the Real World by Dennis Trittin and Arlyn Lawrence. To purchase, visit

Photo:, by Tim Seed

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