Why Helicopter Moms Might Get the Last Laugh

Would mom be happier doing something else? No way. Photo: George Marks/Getty ImagesOverprotective, hovering and … happier than you? That may very well be true, according to a new study, which found that “child-centric” parents—those who put their child’s well-being above their own—experience higher levels of happiness and fulfillment. 

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“Greater child-centrism was associated with the experience of greater positive affect, less negative affect, and greater meaning in life,” writes University of Amsterdam psychologist Claire-Ashton James, lead author of the study published in the November issue of the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science. In contrast with recent arguments about the pitfalls of overinvestment in children, James says that her research supports recent findings that show "personal well-being is associated with investing in others rather than oneself.”

Kostadin Kushlev, one of the study co-authors, tells Yahoo Shine in an email that the study looked at how much time parents spend with their children and how often parents talk about them. He said that measuring child-centrism included "prioritizing children’s needs over one’s own and being willing to sacrifice personal pleasures for them.” Those behaviors, Kushlev explains, are in sync with such parenting styles as “helicopter parenting” and “little emperor syndrome” (though not strictly associated with them), which are “focused on satisfying children’s needs and dedicating a large amount of time to them, rather than with being a ‘tiger’ mom, associated with prioritizing achievement and hard work.”

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For the study, the researchers gave two surveys to 322 parents. In the first, moms and dads answered questions to gauge their level of parental involvement, their parenting style, and their happiness, with the more child-centric ones reporting higher happiness and a stronger sense of purpose in life.

In the next study, parents were asked to recount their previous day's activities and report how they felt during each. Again, the results found that more child-centric parents were happier and more fulfilled. They also remained in a good mood throughout the day, suggesting that this type of parenting doesn’t have detrimental affects when moms and dads are away from their kids.

“The finding that parents who prioritize the needs and happiness of their children before their own are happier when taking care of their children is consistent with a growing literature in psychology that suggests that helping or giving to others has surprising benefits for one’s own well-being,” Kushlev notes. “For example, in other research from our lab, people who spent money on others felt happier than those who spent money on themselves.”

Though the study was not large enough to be representative of the population, and the authors agree that more research is needed, Kushlev adds that their sample size was consistent with that of many similar relationship-focused studies. 

And the findings, says New York "Mommy Coach" and therapist Tammy Gold, jibe with what she says she tries to get across to her clients. “I tell them, ‘They’re only young once,’ and that if you prioritize [your kids] knowing it’s fleeting, you’ll get more joy,” Gold tells Yahoo Shine. But she adds that the joy of helicopter parenting is not the type of happiness you can fake. “You have to genuinely feel it; otherwise, you’ll wind up being resentful and stressed. I think people who don’t feel [the happiness] may be involved with their kids for the wrong reasons, like a vision of them going to Harvard.” (Hello, tiger moms.)

Parents who put their kids first also have to know where to draw the line, she warns. “I like to think of it in the old airline model: When the oxygen mask comes down, if a mother or father doesn’t put theirs on first, nobody is going to survive,” Gold says. “If you’re taxing yourself to irreparable harm — if you’re physically exhausted, if you’re financially taxed, if the burden comes at a cost to your own well-being — then it’s time to pull back, or else your kids are going to feel it. People have the best intentions of giving, giving, giving, but then there’s nothing left. So there’s a fine balance.”

Related:
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'Helicopter Parenting': Tips on Letting Go