Helicopter parenting may be destroying the future of American entrepreneurship

As overprotection goes up, entrepreneurship is going down

American entrepreneurship has been declining for decades. The country that gave us Ford, Apple and the Thigh Master has seen new business formation fall by 50% since the late 1970s, according to the Census Bureau.

Economists and business leaders point to any number of possible reasons for this: Excessive regulations, limited access to capital and market concentration. What they don’t usually think about, though, is the most basic factor of all: entrepreneurial psychology. This drive begins as soon as children start to explore the world. But what happens when they don’t?

What happens when, from birth through post-college “adulting” classes, there’s always a well-meaning parent or professional standing right next to them, coaching, teaching, high-fiving, helping them get a leg up – sometimes literally?

Overly helpful hands can hurt

Consider, for instance, Tumbles, a kiddie gym franchise that offers movement classes for babies four to 18 months old. Those babies get practice climbing up and down soft stairs and crawling up inclines. By doing this, their “understanding of speech improves” and they “start gaining a better awareness of things around them.” Unlike every other child in the world who never took expert-led crawling lessons?

We applaud the entrepreneur behind this franchise. It takes vision to realize parents might actually pay for such services. But Tumbles is a perfect illustration of the moment we’re in, when adults are expected to oversee and orchestrate almost every aspect of children’s lives, lest the kids do it wrong, get hurt or – God forbid – fall behind.

At a playground in in Manassas, Va., in 2006.
At a playground in in Manassas, Va., in 2006.

The examples of excessive adult intervention are endless, but let’s focus for a second on one of the most basic: the fact that many parents today are driving their kids to and from school or the bus stop, rather than letting them get there on their own. Over the course of just a generation, even the words that describe this daily ritual have changed. “Arrival” and “dismissal” have morphed into “drop off” and “pick up.” The kids have become Fed-Ex packages.

But while the majority of kids were walking to school in the 1960s, now it is about 1 in 10. That means only 1 in 10 kids still get that daily chance to discover a new leaf, make up a song or deal with the scary dog.

And then there’s homework – tons of it. A University of Michigan study in 2004 found that kids were spending 7.5 hours more on school and schoolwork than they did 20 years earlier. This trend has not reversed itself. Kids are learning things but not how to organize a game of flashlight tag (leadership), build a treehouse (management) or do a wheelie (risk-taking, persistence and resilience).

Helicopter parenting can be harmful

Helicopter parenting – and snowplow parenting, clearing away all obstacles – may have started out in in the upper middle class, but a 2019 study of more than 3,000 parents found “remarkably similar support for intensive mothering and fathering across a range of situations (among) parents of different social classes.”

For instance, when asked what they should do if their child wanted to draw, the parents across the economic spectrum said: Drop everything and draw with them. Now pause to think about your own childhood for a minute. Do you wish your parent had dropped everything to join you in your secret club house? Do you wish they had enrolled you in a class in how to swing on the monkey bars? (As you might have guessed, that class exists now.)

Or were you lucky enough to figure out something you loved to do and just do it, not for a coach or a class or college résumé?

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Research on the psychology of entrepreneurship supports the importance of childhood freedom to develop the soft skills and resilience needed to build a business – and withstand the inevitable shocks. Jodie Cook, who has studied the childhoods of hundreds of entrepreneurs, found one important commonality was that their parents championed them, but also gave them the independence to generate their own ideas and solve their own problems.

When kids are trusted with free time to figure things out on their own, they start working on their very first job: making something happen. A 2014 study of 6- and 7-year-olds found that the more unstructured time they had, the better their “self-directed executive functioning” – that is, the better they were at figuring out their goals and following through.

This isn’t so surprising when you think of what goes in to organizing even something as simple as a game of kickball. Without an adult running things, kids have to learn how to engage others in an activity, communicate and compromise. A long-term study of British kids found that the ones with the most social skills at age 10 were the most likely to end up as successful entrepreneurs.

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It’s not that every coin collector is going to end up starting a crypto currency, or that every computer geek is the next Bill Gates. But when kids have time not directed or assisted by some adult, they are automatically engaging in entrepreneurship. They are getting something started and seeing where it takes them.

Poet William Wordsworth wrote, “The child is father of the man.” Who we are as children is the oldest part of us – the seed of who we become. When that little shoot is pruned and perfected by doting, assisting, optimizing adults, the kids can become beautiful bonsai trees. But they’re stunted.

Could it be America has been losing its entrepreneurial edge by giving its kids every advantage – except freedom?

Lenore Skenazy (@FreeRangeKids) is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and author of "Free-Range Kids." Clay Routledge (@clayroutledge) is a professor of management at North Dakota State University, a faculty scholar at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, and a senior research fellow at the Archbridge Institute.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Giving kids more freedom encourages skills entrepreneurs need