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Shakespeare on Helicopter Parenting

'And so shall starve with feeding'

Helicopter parenting is a seemingly new development in the epical saga of parenting techniques. The term itself dates back to 1969, but not until the mid-2000s that it rose again to the surface. In recent years, scholarship and public commentary have exploded: references to helicopter parenting in online journals, blogs, and other publications skyrocketed from 77 references in 2001 to over 10,000 in 2016. It became a widely known phenomenon — worthy enough to be studied by social psychologists and sociologists en masse.

Minor disagreements have been overshadowed by common findings; first, helicopter parenting is hyper-present, characterized by abundant parental support but only to craft a child’s behavior and public image. And second, helicopter parenting hinders the child’s ability to develop an autonomous character — the ability to make critical, life-changing decisions, more complicated than deciding between Captain Crunch or Frosted Flakes.

Psychologist Meredith McGinley puts it bluntly in her 2018 study: Children of helicopter parents “lack sufficient backbone to live independently.” It’s not just speculation. In her book Contemporary Parenting and Parenthood: From News Headlines to New Research, sociologist Michelle Janning reports that in a selection of 100 studies done on helicopter parenting in the last 14 years, 35% of publications explicitly wrote that children with helicopter parents are deprived of “autonomy” or “executive functioning.” But modern America is not the first civilization to confront overbearing parenthood; a look back into the past can help us see where we might be heading in the future.

Literary scholar Maria Álvarez Faedo describes the phenomenon of the “new mother” during the Renaissance as a parent-driven ideal to control a child in all respects: education, behavior, and temperament. This “new mother” emerged as a byproduct of Renaissance anxieties concerning the transmission of knowledge: by organizing militant, educative mothers, excellent communication of social and cultural values over generations could be easily accomplished. This issue was so embedded in Renaissance’s consciousness that Shakespeare wrote one of his last tragic plays about it: Coriolanus.

The play follows Roman general Caius Martius as he fails to transition from being a lifelong soldier to become the consul of Rome. After conquering the city of Corioli, Martius is given the city’s name as his own: “Coriolanus.” Following this victory, Coriolanus’s mother and the Roman Senate urge him to enter politics, even though he is a career soldier known for his brutality, bluntness, and wrath. While seeking consulship at the behest of his mother, Coriolanus fails to humble himself down to the level of the Roman commoners, whom he has abused in the past. Consequently, he is banished from his home. In the play’s final act, Coriolanus allies himself with Corioli, the very city he fought in the past and besieges Rome just a few days after. It’s only Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, who succeeds in turning her son away from Rome, but at a cost. After arriving back to Corioli as a peacemaker — not a conqueror — Coriolanus gets torn apart, limb to limb, by the same people he once fought against and later betrayed.

Volumnia’s character lies at the center of Coriolanus. Shakespearean scholar Janet Adelman calls her a “cannibalistic mother” because of her overbearing presence in her son’s actions, even though she is rarely onstage. In her first speech, she tells Coriolanus’ wife: “To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak… I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.” Coriolanus is his mother’s trophy – a war medal, a man whose brow is bound with oak. She goes on to say she’d rather have eleven sons die valiantly in battle than one that lives and never gets to see public honor. She nurtures an ideal image of her son, never the living and breathing Caius Martius. She interacts economically with him: he suffers, fights, and wins while she profits; becoming the most powerful and influential woman in Rome due to her vicinity to her son’s power and prestige.

When Coriolanus returns from the battle, Volumnia says she has seen the inheritance of her “wishes” and the “buildings of [her] fancy,” a mother finally receiving that letter of acceptance from Harvard rejoicing that all of those soccer practices, those tutoring lessons were all worth it (not that I speak from experience or anything).

Throughout the play, Volumnia controls her son’s identity by language; she frequently refers to him as “my boy” and “my soldier,” addressing him as “my first son” only when she kneels to him in mercy as he camps outside of Rome with the rival army. When Coriolanus resists, he says he will become the “author of himself / And [know] no other kin.” or “Fuck Off!”, as teenagers put it today. However, Volumnia has one more trick up her sleeve: she threatens him with suicide and disownment.

Coriolanus consents: he breaks down and kneels in front of her, saying he will obey her and turn back to Corioli. A new mother, a helicopter parent, Volumnia denies Coriolanus independence or autonomy. He is never allowed to make critical decisions that differentiate his achievements from hers. And it is in these choices that the link between autonomy and identity is found. Social scientists have found that difficult decisions are instrumental in developing an authentic identity: decisions to separate oneself from parents, to face challenges, to confront new values, and grow as an individual. Coriolanus lost his autonomy, the social scientist would say, but Shakespeare helps us see that erasure of self as a tragedy.

Before convincing Coriolanus to turn back to Corioles, Volumnia says she “sup[s] upon [her]self / And so shall starve with feeding.” Helicopter parenting is cannibalistic parenting; it’s a self-devouring, and it’s also tragic. As a helicopter parent, Volumnia destroys the very thing she sought to save: her son. By fighting so hard to create a good human being, helicopter parenting ends up destroying the child, if not tearing him or her to pieces.

Just before Coriolanus dies, he is stripped of his agnomen by general Aufidius, who demeans Coriolanus, telling him that his name is a “robbery,” and that he is only a murderer and a “boy of tears.” In his final moments, as Coriolanus is physically torn apart, his identity is entirely dissolved. He faces his failure to develop into an adult, to move out of his mother’s metaphorical house, and acutely asks, “Boy?” as if the realization of his own non-existence, his mother’s ownership of him and his deeds, simply overwhelms him.

Boy? Such is the final, tangible effect of relentless helicopter parenting: when emerging adults struggle for years on end to earn their autonomy and are continually denied the right to make critical life decisions by loving, well-meaning, but ultimately oppressive parents, the fate of their identity is tragic. This is the philosophical link psychologists have yet to examine. Like Volumnia, modern helicopter parents risk creating a generation of children being torn apart.

Luke Williams is a sophomore at Harvard University, concentrating on Social Studies and Philosophy. You can find him lounging off of the newsroom of The Crimson, being way too dramatic onstage through the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Society, or exploring Europe as a Writer-Researcher for Let’s Go Travel Guides.

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