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When helicopters and lawnmowers boss us

by Becky Akers

The nanny state. Paternalistic government.

Americans often but inaccurately compare their political masters to parents (most of the moms and dads I know invest serious money in their kids rather than stealing 10 percent to 39.6 percent of their Christmas and birthday presents). As we plummet down totalitarianism’s black hole, its equivalent in childcare warns us of disaster.

Something radically changed in American culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century,” writes the editor of Psychology Today. That “something” was the advent of “helicopter parenting:” adults “who are overly involved in their children’s lives and hover over them all the time to prevent them [sic] making mistakes or experiencing anything painful.”

Hmmm. Sounds like a creepy uncle we all know and loathe, a thief who also eavesdrops on our every conversation, reads and retains our emails and remembers each website we visit while deciding how we light our homes and what we may eat, drink or otherwise imbibe.

Indeed, so many parents smother their offspring that another machine has joined those circling choppers: “lawnmower parents … don’t [merely] hover, they mow down all the obstacles in their children’s paths, pre-empting and smoothing over problems their children might encounter. Whether it’s choosing a play date with a younger, more docile friend or refereeing and breaking up every argument between their kids, these parents actively insert themselves into their children’s lives.”

And again Uncle Sam springs to mind. Talk about “actively inserting himself into our lives!” This anti-avuncular meddler dictates our associates, neighbors, employees and employers; guarantees our loans; urges us to tattle on one another; intervenes at the slightest hint of disagreement; and ensures that however shiftless we may be, we never go hungry or homeless.

But intrusive parents, even when they mean well, gravely and irrevocably damage their offspring. That’s because kids mature by meeting challenges, making mistakes and even failing. Robbing them of that process, however painful the challenges, mistakes and failure, not only stunts or completely stops their emotional, mental and spiritual development, it also sets them up for endless misery: “… children of overprotective parents are risk averse, have difficulty making decisions and lack the wherewithal to become successful in life. Furthermore, … [they] cannot deal adequately with hardships and other frustrations of life. In other words, they have very low tolerance for frustration and crumble at the first sign of it.” Some research even indicates that over protection “may also slow brain growth in an area linked to mental illness.”

How tragic! But is it any less so when helicopter-politicians and lawnmower-bureaucrats infantilize an entire nation?

Just as growing children need freedom and autonomy along with the concomitant setbacks, so do adults. A government that superintends every detail of our lives, that decides virtually every issue for us, that insulates us from our actions’ consequences and other “evil” (as bureaucrats define it), is not only insulting and blatantly unconstitutional, it is gravely, irrevocably damaging us.

Paternalistic regulations that protect individuals from the bad outcomes of their choices limit the incentive of individuals to make good choices. … if people build their decision-making capacity by making decisions, learning from both their successes and failures, paternalistic policies have the potential to significantly limit this learning-by-doing process. Whether the policies preempt decision making altogether, rig the deck in favor of the paternalist’s preferred outcome or undo the decision after the fact, the edifying decision-making feedback loop is broken. This arrested development may extend beyond the domain covered by the paternalistic policy, as there is some evidence that decision-making competence generalizes across different contexts.”

Scary, isn’t it, even before translating from the jargon: a government that patronizes us by restricting the sugary soda we purchase, for example, harms our ability to make decisions not just about our health but in other areas, too.

Worse, politicians and bureaucrats usually claim that they baby us for our own good. Board a plane, for instance, and a pervert from the TSA will grope you — for your own safety. Laws compel drivers and passengers to “buckle up;” they even decree which seats those passengers may occupy in private vehicles, again supposedly for our benefit. To prevent the illnesses that allegedly arise from unpasteurized milk, regulations prohibit farmers from selling and us from buying it. Ditto for a certain weed, despite its impressive medicinal qualities.

Beneath such laws is a suffocating mother’s ideology and justification: “These idiots will make stupid decisions without me. So out of my superior wisdom and magnanimity, I’ll decide on their behalf — even if they object.” While infants and toddlers obviously require such oversight, a 30-year-old man who still asks Daddy for the car keys is as sad as the formerly free Americans who seek bureaucrats’ permission to drive the vehicles we buy on roads our taxes pay for.

Even more appalling, we’re so accustomed to overweening government that we seldom question it. When was the last time you objected or heard anyone else object to driver’s licenses? Just as abused children cling to and excuse the father who beats them bloody, so American serfs defend their totalitarian governments. “You wanna get rid of driver’s licenses? What, just anybody can get behind the wheel? Look, Nutjob, the DMV’s there to keep the drunks and the crazies and all those senile old people who can’t see off the roads!”

Americans have suffered almost 150 years of socialist, progressive and wholly unConstitutional government. Is it any wonder that we’ve become a “Nation of Wimps,” as Psychology Today’s editor puts it? Perhaps most terrifying of all, helicopter-politicians and lawnmower-bureaucrats have established a self-perpetuating cycle: “When government insulates individuals from the consequences and costs of their short-sighted planning and impulsive choices, and from the challenges of fending off hucksters and dealing with one’s mistakes, … they are likely to develop a greater sense of entitlement to more protection, a lower sense of agency and self-efficacy and a greater willingness to blame others for their own problems.”

Intriguingly, our rulers endorse helicopter parenting with more and more laws against “free-range” kids. Some coincidence, eh?


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