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Parents: When to back off, when to step in

  • Story Highlights
  • "Helicopter parents" may result from generational changes in work, values
  • When safety becomes an issue, it's OK for parents to step in
  • Generally, parents should not intervene with bad roommates, grades in college
  • Experts say parents can pay the rent once, but don't make it a habit
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By Elizabeth Landau
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Do you speed over to your child's school, or even college, whenever something goes wrong?

Parents should try to teach their children how to handle situations themselves, experts say.

Many parents today insert themselves into even the most minute activities in their children's lives, a phenomenon that's known as "helicopter parenting."

But two child experts told CNN that parents should aim to empower their children to do things on their own.

"Parenting should be increasingly in the background as the child gets older," said Vivian Friedman, child-adolescent psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "If you do for your child for too long, they never learn to do for themselves."

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and author of the book "A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens," said it's important to show children you believe they are capable of handling situations themselves, but always put safety first. Read more about helicopter parents »

The "helicopter parent" trend may have arisen because the focus of marriage has shifted from the spouse to the child, Friedman said. An increase in divorce and a greater prevalence of two working spouses also contribute to parents' habits of spoiling their children.

"When [the kids] have little failures, they feel like our own failures," Ginsburg said. "What we need to understand is that our job as parents is not to finish our kids or produce perfect kids. It's to start our kids." Video Watch more on when helicopter parents go too far »

Here's what Friedman and Ginsburg recommended for various situations that may arise in your child's life:

1. The elementary school is putting on "Peter Pan" tomorrow. While you prepare a presentation for an important business meeting, your daughter calls and tells you she forgot her Tinkerbell costume for the dress rehearsal. "I'm the only one who's not dressed up," she tells you.

Friedman and Ginsburg agreed that it's OK to take care of it the first time she forgets the costume, but not if it becomes a habit.

"The first time: Find a housekeeper or neighbor to bring it over," Friedman said. "But if she does this routinely, she needs to suffer consequences to learn from the experience."

"One time, two-time mistake -- it's wonderful to pick up the pieces," Ginsburg said. "If, in fact, you always end up picking up pieces, you can't expect a kid to learn the valuable lesson that they can do it themselves. Learn from failure -- failure's a great thing when you learn how to recover yourself."

2. You're at the playground reading a newspaper and suddenly your daughter runs up to you crying. "They won't let me make sand castles with them," she whines.

Friedman said this one depends on age. For a 3- or 4-year-old, it's appropriate for the parent to go over to the group as a neutral adult and help the children learn that they need to include everybody.

But for a 7-year-old, it's borderline. "You could say, 'What seems to be the problem? Do you think there's a way we could all play together?' rather than 'You can't exclude my child,' " she said.

Ginsburg, on the other hand, said you can suggest to your child what to say, or recommend that she find someone else to play with, but you shouldn't communicate that your child isn't capable of handling the situation.

"Learning how to play nice with other people in the sandbox is a great metaphor for life," he said.

3. Kids in the seventh-grade class just won't leave your son alone, not even online. Besides shoving him against the lockers once in awhile, they've also set up a MySpace page making fun of his appearance and name.

Experts agree that you should step in here and notify the school. Friedman would also notify the parents of the children involved -- "Most rational, reasonable parents would not support their child doing that," she said.

Ginsburg emphasized that safety always comes first. "You don't allow your daughter to put her hand in the oven to learn it's hot," he said. "You don't allow a kid to be bullied when there should be systems in place to prevent bullying. "

4. Your son started college a month ago, and every time you call him he has a new story about his messy, party-loving roommate who distracts him from studying and interrupts his sleep. "I wouldn't mind as much if it were my own vomit on the floor," your son tells you. He says he'll just stick it out for the rest of the year.

Friedman and Ginsburg said they would not approach the college housing department and ask to have the young man moved, except in extreme or difficult circumstances -- such as if the child is in a special needs program and can't help himself, Friedman said.

"There's nothing wrong with asking open-ended questions to help your son figure it out," Ginsburg said. "It's OK to say 'Who can you talk to at the university to change your living situation?' What's not OK is to call the dean and say 'Move my son.' " 5. Always a technical genius, your daughter majors in electrical engineering and will surely become a pioneer of great innovations. But this semester, the last of her junior year, she failed her 18th-century literature class, which she took to fulfill the subject-area distribution requirements. This is going to look pretty bad on graduate school applications.

While the daughter can speak to the professor on her own, Friedman and Ginsburg said they would not intervene in this situation.

Special circumstances would be if the grade was truly unfair and there was real foul play involved, or if the professor was drunk -- but otherwise, Friedman said, "It's her F, it's not your F. I would do absolutely nothing."

6. Your daughter has been in the real world for a year, but she says she's not ready to keep herself afloat financially. For the third time this summer she asks for help paying the rent -- "phone bill would be extra nice," she adds. You also notice that she's got a new pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps, and an iPhone is sticking out of her purse.

Friedman said she would not allow this to come up a third time -- she would have made the daughter set up an automatic debit system early on so her child's rent comes out of the account when her paycheck is deposited. "By the third month, I would let her sink, but I'm not a helicopter parent," she said.

Ginsburg emphasized again the safety component: He would never want his daughter to become homeless. He would pay the first month's rent with clear expectations: She needs to learn how to make a budget, she can't spend money on other things until things like rent and food are taken care of, and she needs to know that this is a loan. "Seven months in a row: she needs to find a roommate," he said.


Finally, note that there are no villains here, Ginsburg said.

"The parents who we think do too much are still doing their very best," he said. "Real success involves resilience: the capacity to learn to bounce back on your own."

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