May 10, 2007
Helicopter parents: Jewish mothers go airborne
Consider further this description from collegeboard.com: "They are always on the lookout for threats to their children's success and happiness. If a problem does surface, these parents are ready to swoop in and save the day."
Definitions of a Jewish Mother, yes? Sorry, bubeleh. They're definitions of "helicopter parent," the phenomenon of hovering, overprotective, overinvested, and overbearing mothers and fathers. Apparently Jewish mothering is contagious: jumping gender and religion on a national scale. Suddenly we are all, as Woody Allen titled his short film in New York Stories, "Oedipus Wrecks." And no one is giving credit where credit is a Jew.
To see just how closely a Helicopter Parent resembles a Jewish mother, one need only glance at collegeboard.com's quiz "How Do You Know If You're a Helicopter Parent?" While the term is often used in the context of parenting college-age children, the similarities are undeniable. Still, the Helicopters can only bob amateurishly in the mighty wake of the Jewish mother jet fighters.
You are in constant contact with your child
Jewish smothering has wrung its hands into the 21st century, where you can run, but you can't hide. The AT & T network was nicknamed "Ma Bell" for a reason, and with satellite technology your mother knows she can hear you now. (Nu, so why aren't you calling?) She can even buy you a ringtone from YentaTones, including "Ya Mother's Cawling," "My Son the Doctor," and "Have I Got a Boy for You."
University of Georgia professor Richard Mullendore dubs cellphones the "world's longest umbilical cord." But Nokia-wielding Helicopters are mere Johnny-come-latelies to long-settled Jewish mother territory. Indeed, as Allen, Phillip Roth and the APA know, Jewish mothers achieved wireless communication decades ago with the guilt-powered internal monologue.
You are in constant contact with school administration
A recent Doonesbury panel depicted a cellphone-brandishing MIT freshman telling the dean if he didn't let her into the class she wanted, he'd have to speak to her father. While Helicopters specifically target college administrators, Jewish mothers have targeted the entire world -- teachers, doctors, roommates, boy/girlfriends, spouses, bosses -- no one is off limits. In Allen's short film, his mother and aunt pay him a surprise visit at work -- a WASPy Manhattan law firm. When an imposing white-haired partner comes to retrieve Allen, who has left an important meeting to head his mother off, she turns to her hearing-impaired sister and says of the boss in a voce not nearly sotto enough, "He's the one with the mistress!"
You make your child's academic decisions
Yes, Helicopters choose their children's school and their courses, after which they may even maneuver their way to do the schoolwork itself. Meanwhile, Jewish mothers have mandated legal, medical, and other professional careers for generations of sons and now daughters, many of whom probably represent Helicopters in their grudge suits against schools or treat them for anxiety and depression when Junior gets a B. Even beyond the academy, Jewish mothers are notorious for deciding everything for their children: from when to wear a sweater to why they shouldn't marry that no-goodnick.
While both Helicopters and Jewish Mothers dictate and interfere, their decision-making methods differ. Helicopters take direct action: the old nothing-gets-done-right-unless-I-do-it-myself approach. Jewish mothers, on the other hand, nudge until they get their children to do it. My son the doctor, as the ringtone trills, wasn't always a doctor, but the Jewish mother knows she can do only so much on her own to make him one. To become Dr. Katz, he's going to have to take his own MCATS. All she can do is provide a little motivation, i.e., alternating doses of praise and guilt.
You feel bad about yourself if your child does not do well
Helicopters derive vicarious pleasure from their children's accomplishments and suffer pain from their "failures." Data released by the Society for Research in Child Development indicates that in seeking self-worth through their children's achievements -- which means getting top grades and into certain colleges -- Helicopters endure more anxiety, depression, and insecurity, and enjoy less contentment, than those on the ground.
Jewish Mothers, too, are utterly invested in their children's advancement. For them, however, it is not the Ivy League or bust. Jewish mothers are less interested in prestige than they are in tikkun olam that happens to come with a house in the suburbs. Steven Spielberg's mother, undoubtedly bursting with nachas, might still feel a pang of regret that her son was not, for example, Jonas Salk. Helicopters want their children to do well; Jewish Mothers want their children to do good.
Popular culture may have assimilated the bagel hamwich, Red State Yiddish, and the "Daily Show," but it can never appropriate the Jewish mother. At the end of the day, both the Helicopters and Jewish mothers are fueled by love gone amok, but only the Jewish Mother answers to an authority higher than Air Traffic Control.
Ronda Fox is the proud mother of two teenage mensches who do their best to keep her grounded.