Why 'Helicopter Parenting' Doesn’t Work in Israel

In a society where children are conscripted at 18, it doesn't make much sense to shelter them from life's realities.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Child with helicopter
Child with helicopterCredit: Dreamstime
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Hear the whirring overhead?

That’s the sound of all of the helicopter parents, clucking and worrying and interfering in every detail of their kids’ lives. In the U.S., the noise grows somewhat louder at this time of year, as parents of high school seniors nervously wait for their college acceptances - and rejection letters - to arrive.

Recently, the din of the discussion over parental hovering has grown so loud, it’s being heard overseas, as far away as our little corner of the Middle East, here in Israel. Such talk first took place a few decades back, mainly in the context of making fun of baby boomer parents and how they overprotected and over controlled their offspring. (Fun fact: it was an Israeli who coined the phrase “helicopter parent” - psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott. Leave it to us to name a parenting style after a piece of military equipment)

What’s been different about the discussion these days is that it focuses less on the neuroses of the parents and more on the effect of such heavy-handed parenting on the kids: How living in the sheltered bubble their parents build around them may be stunting the development of children, adolescents and young adults. It’s been ignited by a lengthy article written by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic, provocatively titled “The Overprotected Kid: A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery - without making it safer.”

Rosin cites research asserting that over supervised middle class kids think less creatively and are “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle” particularly when it comes to “the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way.”

The Rosin piece appeared on the heels of a Slate article last month charging that “Helicopter parenting has crippled American teenagers," a piece that also made waves across mainstream and social media.

It’s been rather fascinating to listen to this conversation long-distance from the Middle East. As I raised my three kids, I never felt too distant from my American friends when it came to parenting. We Israelis are highly westernized and plugged into parenting trends, we argue breast versus bottle, worry about teenage sex and drinking and Internet and smartphone addiction like our American counterpart, so on most topics, commiseration is not a challenge.

But this current conversation about lack of independence and aversion to risk-taking? Less common. Middle class Israeli parents certainly do spoil and indulge their kids plenty, but they hover far less. Elementary school children wander the neighborhood with their friends, take public transportation from a young age, even in the suburbs. Teens travel from city to city with ease, quite often they (gasp) hitchhike, they are far less supervised than U.S. counterparts and far less sheltered.

When I think about why this is so, I reach the contradictory conclusion that it is because Israel is both safer and more dangerous. It is safer because it is a smaller and more cohesive society, with less "stranger danger" because there are fewer degrees of separation and everybody is generally in everybody’s business.

And in some very safe environments, the kids run free. Jen Maidenberg, who moved from suburban New Jersey to a kibbutz in northern Israel, arrived a self-confessed “stereotypical parent" we imagine when we hear the word “overprotective,” “helicopter,” “obsessive,” “controlling.”

She blogged that many American friends sent her links to the Rosin piece because the idyllic free-wheeling childhood was what they were seeing on her Facebook feed - photos of her kids climbing on abandoned equipment and frolicking in the fields. Whether this will result in making it in any way better and happier than if she’d stayed in the US, she admits, is still unclear.

Maidenberg wrote: “It’ll take years, decades even, to see if moving my kids from a warm, welcoming, clean, playdate-scheduling, somewhat overparenting Northern New Jersey suburb to a warm, welcoming, dirty, free play, somewhat underparenting kibbutz in Israel will somehow make them less neurotic than I ended up.”

The larger and darker reasons Israeli kids are less overprotected and sheltered should be obvious to anyone who reads the newspaper or watches CNN. How do you shield kids from the realities of regularly scheduled wars, missile attacks, and as they hit adolescence, their impending 2-3 years of military service at the age of 18?

The army looms large in this picture. While we may be a country full of worried Jewish mothers who want our kids to be doctors and lawyers, the life trajectory of young adults is radically different. After high school, at the end of 18, when their middle-class counterparts in America are heading toward a time of maximal freedom and independence on a college campus, Israelis head into the most structured and inflexible living situation of their life.

This deeply influences the Israeli parenting style. Mom and Dad know their kids are better served by entering the army with a decent level of resilience in order to handle what’s coming, and they aren’t doing them any favors by making them overly dependent. And at the same time, they care more about their teens fully enjoying life until their military service. If it’s a choice between requiring their teen to spending the whole weekend cramming for exams or heading to the beach with their friends, most Israeli parents of teens will let them go to the beach.

We are far too aware that life is short and risky, reminded as we are every year on Remembrance Day of the youths who never made it past the military. Every Israeli parent has memories of that boy in their high school who will, as a sad Israeli classic song goes “Remain forever twenty years old.”

Living in a country where military conscription is a fact of life is certainly not ideal and not the way Israelis would like it to be.

But the sad reality that doesn’t allow middle-class Israeli parents the luxury of shelter and coddling our kids for very long, and that does seem to have at least one clear benefit - a consolation prize, if you will.

While it’s not clear that overprotectiveness hampers creativity, one could argue that Israel presents evidence that an ‘underprotected’ childhood promotes innovation.

Part of the official explanation for the success of the Start-Up Nation - the ridiculously outsized number of patents, inventions, and general entrepreneurial energy and ‘startup-ism’ that emerges Israel is that it has a culture in which people aren’t afraid to fail. To know how to fail - to fall and get on your feet to give it another try - takes practice.

And if the helicopter parents hovering overhead never let you fall - you’ll never learn how to get up again.

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