May 2 2014
Reversing the trend of helicopter parenting has become all the rage among parenting experts, medical professionals, and even political writers who are encouraging parents to land their helicopters and shift toward a more relaxed parenting style -- one that tells parents to hang back, observe from afar so that kids can explore life's challenges. In advising parents to -- as movie star Gwyneth Paltrow referred to her marital separation -- "consciously uncouple" from their kids, the hope is that children will become more independent, experience risks and develop the coping and decision-making skills that will help them through life.
This is a step in the right direction. For far too long, parents have cosseted their children to such a degree that upon release into the wild, some young adults are so frightened by potential predators that they quickly retreat back to the comfort of their cages -- better known as Mom and Dad's basement. Explaining to parents that children must learn critical survival skills early may go far to reverse this parenting trend and that's something to celebrate.
Yet it's worth asking: Is it so easy to stop hovering? After all, parents are bombarded on a daily basis with the terrifying (and largely false) claims that the world is becoming a more dangerous and unhealthy place. From accusations that baby shampoo and lotion, crib mattresses, children's clothing and raincoats, canned food and even baby formula contain cancer-causing toxins to the near-daily headlines generated by dubious scientific studies, parents can't escape the message that the world is beset with extraordinary dangers.
Pregnant women are especially targeted for a particularly vicious variety of alarmism -- the type that claims you're harming your child before he or she is even born. One "study" produced late last year generated a number of shocking headlines for its claim that women who come into contact with plastic products increased their risk of miscarriage. Yet, the news stories didn't mention that the women included in the "study" were already considered high-risk for miscarriage nor did stories mention that the study hadn't yet been peer-reviewed, a critical step in certifying that the study can withstand scrutiny by other scientists.
The cost of this is clear: Parents are left reeling from exaggerated and alarmist health advice designed to get headlines, which ultimately leaves them confused, frightened and more willing to tune-out potentially useful information. Considering this dynamic, is it really likely parents will heed the advice to stop hovering? How can parents relax when the peddlers of hysteria keep telling them it's time to put on their HAZMAT suits?
If we really want parents to calm down, perhaps the more effective strategy is to focus on the groups that are encouraging this hovering behavior in the first place: the radical environmental and public health organizations that promote false information as well as businesses that profit from scaring consumers or are too frightened to stand up and defend their safe and tested products.
Environmental and public health organizations have a powerful influence on parents. They promote themselves as consumer advocates interested in protecting kids. They understand the power and profitability of fear and they know that by alarming people, they can convert parents to their cause, which usually involves demanding regulations on industry.
Businesses also find profit in fear. In fact, an extensive new report by the nonprofit Academics Review found direct evidence that the organic food industry uses fear to promote the misconception that organic food is healthier and safer for human consumption. Specifically, the report found that the organic industry engages in "...widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities..." that cause "...false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions about competing conventional foods." Burrito giant Chipotle is another business that markets fear to sell food. Creating a series of catchy, animated online videos, the $3.2 billion company cast itself as the "small business" working to provide healthy food in a dystopian world ruled by vicious, earth-destroying "Big Food."
While some businesses have learned to use fear to their advantage, other businesses are quick to try to placate activists. Johnson & Johnson's baby shampoo and other baby products have been trusted by parents for more than a century yet more recently, anti-chemical groups have managed to pressure the company into changing the formulations on certain products despite clear evidence and testing that proves the safety of these long-used products.
Clearly, Johnson & Johnson calculated that it was less expensive to change its products than to fight back against the false charges. In a free market, that's a decision companies are free to make but there is a downside to companies caving so easily. Acquiescing to alarmist demands emboldens activists and sends a message to consumers: our products were dangerous before these plucky activist groups demanded changes. After all, why would these businesses change the product if it were perfectly safe?
Of course, there is another cost to these unnecessary product changes. It tells parents they should continue to be nervous, to continue to worry and wring their hands. It tells them to continue to hover in their helicopters wearing their HAZMAT suits.
That's a societal cost that's harder to measure.
Julie Gunlock directs the Independent Women Forum's Culture of Alarmism project and is the author of the book From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back.