CNN Parenting

How to know whether you're a 'helicopter parent' and why it matters

Finding a sweet spot between supporting our children and controlling them is what's needed for them, us and society at large.

(CNN)The fear of being a helicopter parent began years before I had my first son. Back then, I was fairly certain I could avoid overparenting, and would give my children a healthy amount of freedom.

Now, seven years and two kids later, I have no idea if that's the case. If I get down on the floor to do blocks with my toddler, am I guiding or hovering? If I help my kindergartner with a school project, am I inspiring or overbearing?
While "helicopter parent" was first identified decades ago, the concerns surrounding it have evolved. First, we largely worried about the effect this style of parenting had on kids, who were being raised in a pressure cooker and suffering anxiety and depression as a result. Then we became worried about the effect it had on parents, particularly working moms who couldn't keep up with the relentless demands at home after a day in the office. Now we are contemplating the way helicopter parenting feeds the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
    In their new book "Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids," economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti look at how parents in more unequal societies, like the United States, tend to push their children harder than those in more equal societies, like Sweden. The more we perceive the world as one in which the winner-takes-all, the more we are likely to do whatever we can to ensure that our children are the winners.
      My hand-wringing over possibly being a helicopter parent takes into account all three of these issues, along with one more complicating factor. Research shows that some degree of hands-on parenting can actually be beneficial for children, helping them emotionally and cognitively. My own life also tells me that some degree of hands-on parenting can be fulfilling for the parents too. I'm not pining for the days of benign neglect, but I also don't want be buying my children's toilet paper for them while they are in college -- a college they got into with the help of the thousands of dollars I spent on tutoring, or worse.
      How do we know how much parenting is the right amount? And how can I figure out if that is the amount I am doing? Or, in other words, am I a helicopter parent?

      Helicopter parenting is not the same as intensive parenting

        One reason I am so confused about whether or not I am a helicopter parent is because the definition of it is unclear. "Helicopter parenting" is often used as a synonym for intensive parenting, and, more confusingly, both permissive and authoritarian parenting. But these are all different.
        Intensive parenting means you put a lot of time, energy and thought into raising your children. Helicopter parenting means you oversteer and overprotect, leaving little up to chance. Helicopter parents can come in all flavors. There are the buttoned-up ones, who have their sights set on Ivy League degrees, and free-spirited ones, who view the curation of their child's creativity and self-expression as a monumental task.
        Permissive and authoritarian parenting is part of another taxonomy altogether, one that also includes authoritative parenting. Authoritarian means you lead by command without taking the child's desires into consideration; authoritative means you direct your children, but are also responsive and nurturing; and permissive means you let your children do whatever they want.
        One can be permissive or authoritarian and still be a helicopter parent. Permissive helicopter parents ensure that their child gets what their child wants. Authoritarian helicopter parents ensure that their child gets what the parent wants. Either way, the child has few opportunities to fend for herself.
        "Helicopter parents don't develop independence and self-advocacy in their children," said Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist, school consultant and co-author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age."