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Published Date: April 19, 2016

Published Date: April 19, 2016

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Helicopter Headship

Have you heard of the term “helicopter parent”? It is a relatively new expression used to describe an authoritarian parenting style. A helicopter parent excessively protects, helps, and monitors a child’s life, leaving no room for individual exploration, be it failure or success.

Staff members on college campuses have reported an influx of young adults who are ill-prepared to join the adult world when they arrive at school. Often, they still have their parents “hovering” over them, making all of their decisions, and taking responsibility where the adult child naturally should.

Helicopter parenting is often a reflection of the caregiver’s own egotistical insecurities, coupled with a belief that the child’s purpose is to ease those insecurities and make the parent happy. This is detrimental to the child’s mental, social, and/or physical development.  

The helicopter parenting phenomenon is closely associated with and considered to be a cause of what psychotherapists refer to as “Dependent Personality Disorder” or “codependency.”

Codependency occurs because a person believes that he or she needs long term care, combined with the fear of being independent of significant individuals (parent or partner). A codependent experiences a distinct lack of self-confidence in their own abilities, and often attempts to maintain dependency on a dominant individual through acts of submission or service.  

A sample of codependency symptoms include:

  • Avoidance or inability to make decisions without excessive amounts of advice.
  • Relying on others to make decisions and/or take responsibility for those decisions.
  • A tendency to be naive.
  • General passivity and difficulty initiating things.
  • Low confidence in one’s own judgement or ability, including a belief that one is unable to care for himself or herself.
  • Elevating a caregiver’s needs and desires above one’s own, to the point that one is willing to withhold disagreement, even be mistreated, taken advantage of, or abused to garner the approval of a caregiver.

Children who grow up in an environment like this experience shock when they enter adulthood. The real world is not as kind as their protected childhood, and they do not have the skills, confidence, discernment, or maturity to navigate life as a competent adult.

The ingrained messages from their childhood—“you can’t do this by yourself; it’s not safe for you; I know better and you need me to protect you”—become self-fulfilling prophecies.

If not dealt with, these adults remain dependent on their caregivers, gravitate towards controlling and abusive relationships, crumble under failures, and lack the confidence and drive to excel in life.

I can’t help but notice the similarities between helicopter parenting and complementarian headship.

Often from infancy, girls in complementarian homes are taught that, because they are girls, they are special (created for men), fragile (weak), vulnerable (too emotional and easily deceived), and therefore in need of men to fight for them, protect them, and teach, lead, and decide for them in all major (and often minor) areas of life. I call this “helicopter headship.”

This too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because many complementarian girls are not taught autonomy—how to defend, discern, and decide for themselves—they are left in need of someone to do this for them (father, husband, or male pastor). They develop a type of spiritual and often practical codependency, believing that women were not created to be as assertive, decisive, discerning, or capable of leadership as men. They easily fall into submissive helper/assistant gender roles under a dominant male.

This nurtured mindset plays conveniently into the complementarian narrative that women do better when “joyfully submitting” to the control of men. But the fact is, they simply have not been trained or given the confidence to lead. They have never been allowed the opportunity to fail, recover, and then learn and grow from their experiences.  

When women and girls are patronized by helicopter headship, they are unable to develop into the strong, competent, leading individuals that they were created to be. Instead, they find themselves codependent, ever-searching for a man to serve and be protected by, while simultaneously easing the insecure egos of their male caregivers.

When we over-protect women from hard decisions, spiritual discernment, full responsibility for themselves, and significant leadership opportunities, we do a great disservice to their spiritual and mental development.

We never see God patronizing, over-sheltering, micromanaging, or hovering over women. Women are given the same calling to go into the world and preach the gospel, the same responsibility in their spiritual lives, the same opportunity for gifting, and the same access to the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish these things as men. I believe God’s heart for both men and women is health, wholeness, and maturity.  

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people (men and women) for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Ashley Easter is a contributing writer in CBE’s latest book, Created to Thrive: Cultivating Abuse-Free Faith Communities, which brings together experts and faith leaders to tackle topics related to abuse. Created to Thrive equips churches to respond wisely to reports of abuse and create safe spaces where all can flourish, and it explores the dangerous consequences of women’s devaluation and how theology can perpetuate abuse. Learn more here.

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