We have often discussed the dangers of “little emperor” syndrome in one child China.  However, an article first published in the Daily Mail last week is the first time I have seen the ‘syndrome’ applied to the West. 

Working with a group of primary school teachers recently, child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer describes being appalled as primary school teachers reeled off their latest nightmare classroom dealings during a school holiday meeting.

I have also anecdotally heard from primary school teachers that their new entrants seem less able to follow rules than in times go by.   In some ways this is a puzzle, because you might think that children who are more likely to have been institutionalized in day cares from a young age would be used to following rules.

Gummer's explanation is that too many children are now 'helicoptered' by their parents so tend to play up at school to get attention, exhibiting a “little emperor” syndrome.  Worse still, she says, many parents are very ambitious for their children’s futures and blame teachers instead of their child for any problems.

This phenomenon is probably both a result of smaller families than in the past and changing parenting methods.  Fewer children means more opportunity to ‘helicopter’ and more pressure to succeed placed on one or two children.  Added to this, parents feel a lot more pressure than they did in the past to ‘helicopter’.  It is easy to feel judged by others if you’re not always there, thinking ahead for your child and making sure they never hurt themselves.  Where do you draw the line on safety issues such as high play equipment etc.?  “Helicoptering” often comes from a place of love and concern, but may often be misplaced.  According to Gummer:

Their parents may well be time-poor – perhaps feeling guilty for working long hours – so are loath to play the bad guy. Maybe they've bought in a little too enthusiastically to increasingly child-centric attitudes. But the reality is many youngsters misbehaving in class are being brought up with little discipline or boundaries by doting parents. Small wonder they think nothing of defying the authority of other adults.

It is certainly doesn’t help when we have increasing cases of children dictating to authority figures about the hair styles and clothing they want to wear at school, as if it is their right to decide.  Boundaries and a respect for authority are serious issues because they affect children’s ability to be happy through life.  New Zealand child behavior expert, Diane Levy,  explains that children are actually at increased suicide risk if they feel that there are no boundaries around them (for a range of reasons) even if they are constantly testing those boundaries; to feel secure within their family unit and school community they have to feel that they are there.

Over the last few decades we have become increasingly concerned about being able to give our children everything they need and much more than is really needed at all.  But Gummer explains:

Yes, they may believe they are providing their child with the best start in life – but such an approach can cause a wealth of behaviour problems.

For example, when a child refuses to put on their coat, if their mum or dad carries it round all afternoon 'just in case', rather than letting their son or daughter get cold, the child never learns to take responsibility for their bad decision. The idea that someone else will always put things right takes hold in their mind

And if a child has always had a parent clearing dangers from their path, instead of letting them take the odd tumble, of course they'll think it's OK to run around a classroom. Yet when they trip over a chair, they'll blame everyone but themselves for the fact they got hurt – because no one thought to move the chair in the first place.

When it's all spelt out like this, we can start to see why so many employers are complaining that today's young people – the so-called millennial generation, the first to emerge from an upbringing by helicopter parents – are more unemployable than ever.

Children need rules, boundaries and opportunities to feel the cold, go hungry and fall down and hurt themselves, so they can learn from their mistakes. If they are deprived of those basic life experiences at home, it makes educating them a far greater challenge for their teachers than it ever need be.


Gummer goes so far as to suggest the millennial generation, the first generation to come through that have been potentially parented by ‘helicopter’ parents, are far less employable.  That affects all of us.  Perhaps it is time to cut our expectations of what children need.  They might actually turn out better equipped for school and life if they share a room with a sibling, get rained on if they forget their rain jacket, fall off the jungle gym once in a while, and get detention for failing to do their own homework.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...