Helicopter Parents: Posthuman tropes of bad mothering

Curator's Note

The renewed dialogue about overparenting taking place in the wake of the 2019 U.S. college admission scandal requires an intersectional cyberfeminist lens attentive to the race, class, gender, and ability of parents and children as these are embodied in posthuman tropes of bad parenting.

“Snowplow parents” (and “lawnmower parents”)--critiqued for impairing their children's growth and independence by habitually moving obstacles out their path--are the descendants of what were termed “helicopter parents” at the turn of the century. These terms accurately capture the fusion of parental bodies with technology in the 21st century while simultaneously misdirecting social anxieties about our technologically infused lives and misattributing blame in some predictable ways. The “parents” who use digital and other devices to care for their children and who are blamed for the alleged lack of independence, competence and motivation among young adults are hovering, plowing or mowing mothers--middle or elite class and typically white. This is illustrated in the GMA segment above; it is also illustrated by the almost exclusive focus in coverage of the college admissions scandal on the wrongdoing of two celebrity mothers (Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin) whose equally famous husbands largely escaped public scrutiny. 

In one sense, the mother as machine is simply a new instantiation of a familiar cliché. The white, middle or upper-class mother whose care morphs into control has close affinities, for example, with tropes of “the Jewish mother” or the “Tiger mother.” In each tale of bad (pathological) mothering, a woman’s obsession with her child’s success disables her children.

Unlike those earlier tales of animalized (subhuman) mothers, however, today's cautionary tales of technologized (posthuman) mothers foreground concerns about the well-being of economically privileged white and model minority children--thus, shifting public attention away from harms suffered by poor, black, and brown children under regimes of economic, environmental and racial injustice. Moreover, the overcaring of white and model minority mothers featured in today's morality tales critiques the same norms it deploys to critique brown, black and poor mothers as deficient carers. Thus, tales of hovering mothers justify the ongoing surveillance of mothers while blaming mothers for the harms inflicted by a surveillance culture


Yes, all of this! Living in Baltimore, your final argument about over-caring priveliged parents drawing attention away from the educational access issues faced by people of color in many cities rings loud and clear. I would add to that, that while the media frames the misbehavior of wealthy, influential people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin as "overcaring" or "helicopter parenting," when parents of color do their best to find places for their children in the best public schools their cities have to offer, their actions are framed as "gaming the system" or "taking advantage." 

Thanks, Charlotte, for these observations about the different rhetorical framings of caring for children.  Part of what is interesting in the dialogue surrounding the U.S. college admission scandal is that certain rich parents (read mothers) are now also being vilified as gaming the system. This may seem an 'equalizing' move. But what remains occluded--and what various tales of helicopter and snowplow parents, in fact, divert us from, is the fact that the system is already structured to favor some children over others.

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