Binge Drinking Now Being Blamed On Helicopter Parenting

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Chicago Tribune writer Heidi Stevens reacts to a widely shared essay in the Atlantic called “How helicopter parenting can cause binge drinking.” Stevens spends plenty of time poking more than a few holes in the Atlantic essay.

Chicago Tribune

Add binge drinking to the list of things being prematurely blamed on helicopter parenting.

In a widely shared Atlantic essay, “How helicopter parenting can cause binge drinking,” author Caitlin Flanagan posits that modern college kids overindulge because they never leave their suffocating parents, even when they underage drink.

The problem, one of them, is Flanagan fails to offer an ounce of evidence. So an attention-grabbing, fear-inducing headline leads to little more than a polemic against a parenting style she doesn’t like.

Helicopter parenting means different things, depending on who’s railing against it. In this essay, it means prepping your kids for an elite college.

“Professional-class parents and their children are tightly bound to each other in the relentless pursuit of admission to a fancy college,” she writes. “A kid on that track can’t really separate from her parents, as their close involvement in this shared goal is essential.”

Even on the weekends.
So parents indulge in “social hosting,” Flanagan maintains, defined as “allowing teens to get hammered in the comfort and safety of the rec room.”

“Collect the car keys, make sure no one gets into trouble, peek out from an upstairs window, bustle into the TV room with a tray of alcohol-absorbent pizza bites, and then relax in the knowledge that the kids are all right,” she writes. “They have the freedom to experiment that they crave and the physical protection that your peace of mind requires.”

This is, by every thoughtful expert’s account, a terrible idea.

It’s also not new. Hosting your kids’ parties wasn’t always considered helicopter parenting, but it has gone on for generations. Is it happening in more households than it used to? Flanagan doesn’t say.

Does it happen more in households that send kids to elite colleges? She doesn’t say. Households run by elite college alums?

Doesn’t say.

Does it lead to binge-drinking in college? In Flanagan’s anecdotes, it does. Particularly when parents prize (and push) performance alongside partying.

“A teenager growing up in one of the success factories, the exceptional public high school in the fancy zip code, the prestigious private school, will oftentimes be a person whose life is composed of extremes,” Flanagan writes, “extreme studying, extreme athletics, extreme extracurricular pursuits and extreme drinking. Binge drinking slots in neatly with the other, more obviously enhancing endeavors.”

I suppose that’s a fair-ish conclusion to draw. But some evidence showing it actually happens would save this essay from being a fear-mongering stereotype-fest. (Pizza bites! Success factories!)

As it stands, the essay reads like hostile nostalgia for a simpler time, when teenagers drank in cars, as God intended, and parents didn’t hover.

“I was a teenager in the 1970s,” Flanagan writes. “We did not drink, or do drugs or have sex, in captivity. We did those things in the wild, away from our parents, in the danger and thrill of the dark, sacred night.”

And then drank only a normal amount, not a binge-y amount, in college? She doesn’t say.

Still, you might be saying, What’s the big deal?
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A popular essay warns against serving alcohol to your teenage kids. What’s wrong with that?

The sentiment summed up in this paragraph, mostly:

“No wonder these young people keep drinking,” Flanagan writes. “The hollowness at the center of their lives, the increasing abandonment of religion, the untethering of sexuality not just from relationships but even from kindness, the race to jump aboard the STEM express because that’s where the money is, the understanding of eventual parenthood as something that will be subordinated to the management of two successful careers, and the understanding that their own parents care so little about them that they will happily allow them to sustain the kind of moral injuries that blackout behavior often engenders, would make too much consciousness hard for anyone to take.”

That’s a whole lot of nonsense to place at the feet of helicopter parenting.

Rather than offer support and guidance for parents navigating the ever-changing, increasingly judgmental, high-stakes world of adolescence, Flanagan dishes out blame and disdain. She questions the values of parents whose kids binge drink, without offering a shred of evidence that their parenting style causes the behavior.

She takes our parenting fears and flames them. To what end?

Parents who hover aren’t all in relentless pursuit of a fancy college, and parents in pursuit of a fancy college aren’t all villains. (Some of them are immigrants working 11-hour waitressing shifts.)

But parent-shaming rarely leaves room for nuance. Especially helicopter parenting-shaming.

“From this has flowed a benefit that parents love, deep emotional closeness throughout adolescence, with no shadow of a future parting,” Flanagan writes. “Kids don’t rebel against their parents anymore; why would they? Would you rebel against the concierge at the Hyatt?”

It’s a clever line. Too bad it’s delivered with such contempt for the very people reading it.

Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune

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