How to Deal with Helicopter Parents

In my time as a scout leader, and especially as a Scoutmaster, I had my share of helicopter parents.  Their traits are adequately documented elsewhere.  They can be a big problem in scouting, but the problem is hardly limited to scouting.

I have a relative who will enter West Point military academy this fall.  The parent of this pending cadet relayed to me that they had been asked to join a Facebook page of other cadet parents only to find that helicopter parents were arranging summer meet-ups between the incoming cadets.  I’m sure only a handful of them were going down that path but, for other parents preparing to see their offspring join anti-terror military operations in about 4 years, it must seem strange that some parents were arranging play dates for their graduating seniors.

I find it useful to distinguish between parents who are simply living vicariously through their children and those who are using Boy Scouts as a means of accomplishment and development of special needs scouts.

Sometimes those special needs scouts do need attention from their parents in order to be successful, especially at a younger age.  My experience is that the latter are amenable to work with and will back off as their son grows in capability and confidence.  Here are my keys for a Scoutmaster dealing with special needs parents:

  • Learn the tricks that they use to manage and help their scout.  They can tell you  when they are strict, when they are soft, the signs of an impending meltdown, the scout’s fears and social challenges, etc.  The Scoutmaster simply has to talk to these `parents. Get them in a private setting and  be clear that you are willing to invest extra time in their son.  Also be clear that you will make mistakes and that they should never assume when something goes wrong that you didn’t care.  You are a volunteer doing your best.  Some things are beyond your control.
  • Talk to the Scout often and in confidence.  With one scout with a strong tendency to be unruly, I created hand signals that I used to tell him that I could see his energy level rising and that he was about to do/say something inappropriate.  It worked very well and was a secret he and I still share today.  When they know you care and somewhat understand them, they’ll work hard to meet your expectations – and grow in the doing.
  • In public, treat the scout like everyone else.  No matter their challenges or intellect, speak to them as an adult.  This means teasing and joking with them in appropriate ways not reflective of their special needs but that makes them feel comfortable and not forgotten.

For those parents who are simply living vicariously through their children, they will eat up all of your time – time best spent with scouts.  My recommended strategy is to avoid, ignore, of divert and obfuscate.  Here are some specific tactics:

  • These parents may want to sit in on every discussion you have with their children.  NEVER allow it.  If you do, you’ll end up with countless emails and follow ups from the parent. And you’ll never get the chance to engage with the scout.
  • Avoid email conversations with the scout.  You’ll just end up with the parents writing the email for the scout.  Insist on in-person discussions whether on the phone or in-person.
  • If the parent is an involved scout leader, give them something to do besides engaging with scouts (especially their own.)  Helicopter parents rarely have an effective report with their own son.  It is unrealistic to think they will be effective mentoring other scouts.  And, by their nature, they will prevent scout leaders from doing their jobs.  There are always fund raisers, special events, etc to keep them busy.
  • Leverage the early teen years.  At 10 years old, scouts are accustomed to their parents babying them.  But at 13, they will, to varying degrees, rebel against overprotective parents.  This is a great time to step in as a positive role model (at a time when negative role models often win the day.)  Don’t do anything to subvert the parent’s relationship – that would clearly be out of bounds.  Just magnify the role any Scoutmaster is charged with:  interacting with scouts in ways that challenge them to become self-sufficient.
  • Leverage survival skills.  A trait of helicopter parents is that they pack everything for their scout’s camping trips.  Overwhelmingly, they pack too much.  Challenge the scouts at the campsite by having them build their own shelter, manage without a flashlight, cook over a ground fire, etc.  They become self-sufficient more quickly because their helicopter parent can’t do much to help them.
  • Don’t feel compelled to report every small behavioral incident to parents.  Scouts are rambunctious boys and cause problems.  Make sure you keep all relevant leaders and parents informed about major behavioral problems.  But anything you tell a helicopter parent will instantly become a major problem.  Scoutmaster’s should reserve the right to deal with small issues locally and without blowing out of proportion.  Common sense rules on what is big versus small.  Discuss with your Committee Chair for those blurring the lines.

Don’t expect them to fundamentally change.  The helicopter parent of a 10 year old will accompany him on his college tours and ask all the questions.  And they’ll arrange college play dates if he gets into West Point.


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