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Cockpit Parents: How They're Flying 20-Somethings into the Ground

With some healthy boundaries, you will gradually be able to eject from the cockpit of your child's life and allow them to be the captain. You may not always like the direction they are headed, but it is their plane to fly.
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Perhaps you've heard the term "helicopter parenting" as a way to describe the way today's 20-somethings (Gen Y) were hovered over in childhood by their parents. As a life coach to 20-somethings and consultant to corporations with Gen Y employees, I've seen the effects of an even more intrusive child-rearing style that I have coined as "cockpit parenting." Cockpit parents did more than hover. They sat right in the pilot's seat of their child's life, charting the course and navigating all of the twists and turns. And they often remain there well into their child's adulthood. The result is a trend of 20-somethings who are having trouble thriving as independent adults.

Cockpit parenting does come from a place of love. However, this intrusive and often controlling way of child rearing has caused many 20-somethings to be unequipped for life outside of the nest (which is why so many never leave or move back home after college). It is the children of cockpit parents who most often fit the stereotypes of Gen Y: sense of entitlement, consistent need for validation, non-self-starters, mediocre work ethic and a general lack of soft skills. Conversely, 20-somethings who come from backgrounds that may appear to be more difficult (such as having absentee parents) are more prepared for grown-up life because they had no choice but to grow up.

Sarah, 22, came to me for coaching after her mother sought me out to help her prepare for job interviews. During our first session, she handed me her résumé with a look of panic in her face, and said, "I need you to help me memorize this." Immediately, I knew that this request had indications of cockpit parenting. I replied, "What gives you the idea that you need to memorize your résumé, rather than just working on being comfortable talking about your experience?" And then the answer I suspected: "My mom wrote it for me and made-up half the stuff to make it look like I had more experience. So I have to memorize it to make sure it looks like I've done these things."

Cockpit parents tend to pull all kinds of maneuvers like this. Things like writing their child's résumé, calling in favors to their friends to get their child an internship or job, or even making-up corporations where their child has "worked." And let's not forget my personal favorite: listing themselves as references. These parents think they are helping, but they are not. There is a line between supporting your children and enabling them. And if cockpit parents continue to sit in the pilot's seat of their child's life, then the adult child continues to remain dependent on mom and dad for advice, money and answers to questions they should be answering for themselves.

Allow me to back up for a moment and discuss some reasons why cockpit parenting has become so pervasive. The trend that was popular when Baby Boomers had their children was a very "kid-centric" style of parenting. Parents were determined to have a better relationship with their children than they had with their own parents, so they became committed to making their children's lives easier. Additionally, as they climbed their way up corporate ladders, the control and power that created resulted in their work-life often coming home with them -- they started managing their children like employees. But these children had far more leverage and perks than any employee ever would.

Now, the study of emerging adulthood (or "adultolescence") has become a growing area of focus among psychologists and sociologists, as we are observing that today's 20-somethings are most certainly behind. A recent study commissioned by Zync from American Express as part of the Quarterlife Project reveals that only two in five people in their 20s describe themselves as being completely financially independent.

Many parents are beginning to realize that it is time to resign from being captain of their 20-something's life. Daniel, 29, and his father Peter came to me for coaching to work on cutting the purse strings. In our session, Peter confessed that he has realized how supporting Daniel financially has actually cost both of them: "All the while I thought I was helping Daniel by giving him the unconditional support I never got, but always wanted from my own father. Now I realize I have actually crippled my son and put us both in a situation that is hard for us to get out of." And as much as Daniel wants to provide for himself, he has grown accustomed and quite comfortable with the Bank of Dad. Until recently, Peter convinced himself that as long as he has the money to help his son, it's not a problem. But it is a problem because Daniel is failing to launch.

This article is not about pointing fingers at cockpit parents, but rather about pointing out that it is time for a change in parenting style. Below are some tips for cockpit parents to support their son or daughter in getting off the ground:

  • Don't be an enabler. A huge temptation, even expectation, exists for parents to provide for their children in every way. But remember the old adage, "If you catch a fish for a man, he eats for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he will eat forever." Yes, the economy and job market are challenging; but do not use that as an excuse to continue sheltering your adult child from reality. Being a loving parent is about teaching responsibility, rather than engaging in over-responsibility. Think about the ways you are enabling your adult child: paying their rent or bills, allowing them to live at home rent-free, writing their résumés, getting them jobs, etc. Commit to making changes in your parenting style.

  • Stop saving them. Cockpit parents like to throw on their superhero capes and rush in to problem solve or save their children from making mistakes. What this has created is a bunch of 20-somethings who are terrified of failure, uncomfortable with risk, paralyzed when it comes to making decisions and who still feel the need to consult mom or dad about every choice. Think about what has made you successful. I suspect that many of your mistakes were the very things that taught you the most in life. You learned from falling on your face a few times. It is understandable to want to save your children from painful lessons, but how else will they learn that they can pick themselves up when they fall?
  • Your money is not their money. Gen Y has the more affluent parents than any other generation that came before them. And many have grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle that they cannot afford on their own. So just because you have the money to help them out, it does not mean that you should. As long as you continue to do so, you are impacting their ability to self-generate and possibly putting your own retirement plans at risk. After I graduated from college, I knew that I was own my own financially. And it was one of the best things my parents ever did for me because I learned at an early age how to provide for myself. You may have to squirm a little when you watch your child move into a crappy apartment with three other people, but I assure you, they will be more likely to move up and out of that crappy apartment than your house!
  • Ask, don't answer. It is time to stop telling them what to do. When they come to you for advice, guide them into finding their own answers. Ask them questions like, "What do you think? What ideas do you have about this? What is an action step you could take? What do you think is making this choice or situation challenging for you?" Let them figure things out for themselves, even if you think you know better. Find out what roadblocks they are encountering, and rather removing them, encourage them to problem solve ways to overcome them.
  • Create age-appropriate agreements. To stop cockpit parenting, new guidelines are necessary. If your 20-something is still living at home, have them pay rent. Draft a lease agreement that outlines the terms and conditions of this tenant arrangement. If you continue to provide them with the same environment and freebies like free laundry and groceries that they received as a minor, believe me, they'll continue to act like one. If you are paying their bills instead of having them pay out of their own pockets, offer them a loan with interest instead so that they can physically pay their bills themselves. Your 20-something is a grown-up, and the old rules and ways of doing things don't apply anymore. Now is the time to create a parent and adult child relationship.
  • Get your own life. This is a tough one for many parents who pride themselves on being friends with their children. Please don't be their friend on Facebook and comment on all their photos. Give them some space, and find your own as well. Invest in yourself, spend time with friends and start doing the things you put off because you were investing so much time into making your child what you think he or she could be. Let them be who they are, and discover who you are.
  • Changing your parenting style may result in your child not liking you as much for a while, but remember that growing pains lead to growth. The job of a parent is not to be liked, but to empower children to learn how to like themselves. I can assert from both personal and professional experience that the 20-somethings who are able to financially and emotionally support themselves have increased levels of self-esteem, happiness and success in their life.
    With some healthy boundaries, you will gradually be able to eject from the cockpit of your child's life and allow them to be the captain. You may not always like the direction they are headed, or the speed with which they are going, but it is their plane to fly. There may be a little turbulence, but often this is a necessary part of reaching the final destination. So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.