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From hummingbird to helicopter—what’s your parenting style?

There are no perfect parenting philosophies, but these labels may help us understand ourselves a little more clearly.

From hummingbird to helicopter—what’s your parenting style?

In the world of parenting there are labels for every time of parent—helicopter parent, attachment parent, free range, etc. Even if you aren’t a fan of labels (which many of us aren’t), sometimes the ideas buried beneath the labels can be useful .


By considering the philosophies that underlie these labels, we can gain a little awareness of ourselves and how we approach parenting. If you are like many of us, you may see aspects of each label that define your own parenting style.

The research labels

These three classic categories are based on research by Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist from the 1960s, but they have really stood the test of time:

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1. Authoritative parenting

In the research world, this label encompasses the “ideal” parent. Of course, in the real world, there are no perfect parents, but the philosophy underlying this approach is helpful because it is all about balance.

Authoritative parents are not too strict, but not too permissive. They provide boundaries, but are also open to some (age-appropriate) negotiation with kids. The classic definition includes a balance between being high demanding and being highly responsive. This balance helps kids feel safe but also gives them room to grow and develop a sense of independence.

2. Authoritarian parenting

This is what today we might call parenting the “old school” style. Authoritarian parents are very strict, demanding and offer little room for flexibility or independence.

This style of parenting focuses on the parent trying to control not only the behavior of the child, but also their emotions. Trying to control a child’s emotions ultimately sets them up for emotional challenges—afraid to show emotions.

3. Permissive parenting

We are all pretty familiar with this approach—it’s basically the laissez-faire form of parenting—guidance and boundaries are not prioritized and children are allowed to make their own choices. Unlike authoritarian parenting, a permissive parenting approach does focus a lot on meeting the emotional needs of kids.

However, in contrast to authoritative parenting, permissive parents also provide few controls on behavior as well. This sets up a situation in which the child may feel insecure due to lack of rules or structure.

The cultural labels

Let’s look at how popular culture has adapted those research labels in the modern world. Since those three classic categories are fairly broad, our modern parenting culture and media have taken to refining parents more narrowly.

Helicopter parent

This is the one we hear all the time, right? These are the parents who hover over the kids, solve their problems and yes, even call their young adult’s college professors to try to change a grade (it does happen!). As we see now, the real downside to the helicopter parenting approach is a lack of independence and resilience on the part of the kids.

Modern parenting research has shown us that kids’ lives cannot be free of stress. By overcoming obstacles and facing failure, kids build many emotional skills that are needed later in life.

Tiger parent

This label we don’t hear as often in recent years, but it was the topic of much media attention in 2011 with the publication of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua. It generally refers to parents who prioritize their child’s academic success above almost anything else. Much like a combination of a helicopter parent and an authoritarian, these parents can be very demanding but also limit their child’s choices and independence.

Hummingbird

This is a new parenting label that you may just be beginning to see in the media. Like you might imagine, the hummingbird parent is the muted version of the helicopter parent. Hummingbird parents hover but do not interfere too much in the decisions of their children. They remain physically (or psychologically) nearby to jump in if their children need them, but they try to not make decisions for them or prevent their failures.

This in many ways describes the modern-day version of authoritative parenting—a balance of support and independence.

Attachment parenting

Attachment parenting and attachment theory are often thrown around in conversation like they are one in the same, but they are not.

Attachment parenting is a label that originated largely from the work of Dr. Sears, a pediatrician who promotes a parenting style that involves close physical contact with kids (bed sharing, baby wearing) as well as responsiveness and reading babies’ cue.

Attachment theory refers to a child development theory developed in the 1950s by two psychologists after seeing the traumatizing effects of children being separated from their parents during WWII. The theory focuses on understanding how parents bond with their children (especially in the first two years of life) through responsiveness, soothing and being a “secure base” for their developing child’s explorations.

While attachment parenting most likely promotes a “secure” attachment (the word used in the theory), it is NOT the only way to establish a secure attachment with your child. Attachment theory, as opposed to attachment parenting, does not promote specific parenting practices, but rather a general idea of responsive parenting.

Free range parenting

Free-range parenting is basically the antithesis of helicopter parenting. In response to what they see as the cultural trend toward over-parenting and over-protection among parents, free-range parents allow much more independence for their kids.

Reminiscent of 1960s-70s parenting, free-range parents are more likely to allow their children to take on age-appropriate responsibilities and freedoms like walking to school on their own, visiting a nearby park unsupervised or allowing them to fail at a task in order to build "grit."

However, the free-range philosophy is not without rules or boundaries. Free-range parents just focus more on building confidence, resilience and coping skills in their kids. In this endeavor, they rely more on everyday life experiences rather than adult-organized activities.

In reality, most of us represent a mix of several different parenting styles.

It can be helpful, however, to understand these various philosophies and the pros and cons of each. There are no perfect parents and no perfect parenting philosophies, but these labels may help us understand ourselves—and our values— a little more clearly.

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