The First Time I Heard the Term “Helicopter Parents”
The summer after my junior year of high school, my parents decided it was time for me to get a job. I agreed, actually, but fun fact about the labor market: no one wants to hire 16-year-olds. There are lots of restrictions about the number of hours they can work, they have no experience, and they’re very hormonal. So despite hours of trudging around submitting applications in my favorite short-alls (#1 in Outfits That Will Guarantee Unemployment), I was jobless.
I’d resigned myself to a summer of backyard burning-but-not-tanning when one of my teachers emailed me to saying he’d heard about a lawyer who was looking to hire a student. Nothin’ fancy, just clerical work. I love few things in life more than alphabetization, so I contacted the lawyer and set up an interview.
When the big day came, I was in top form: actual pants, hair brushed for once, maybe even earrings? My dad drove me over during his lunch break at work.
“How long is this going to take?”
“I dunno, probably not more than 15 minutes.”
“Okay. I’ll just wait in the lobby then.”
The office took up the ground floor of an old brick building; from the outside, it looked distinctly like a private investigator’s office. When we walked in, my immediate reaction was: “This is not what the law firm looked like on Ally McBeal.”
The place was a mess. There were shoulder-high stacks of books and papers on every surface, the walls were covered in yellowed newspaper clippings, there was so much dust in the air that you could reach out and grab a fistful. And there was no lobby, just three well-worn chairs shoved into a corner. My dad plopped down on a velour armchair while I made my way back to the secretary: a large, pug-faced woman who seemed to hate me immediately.
“I think I have an appointment with Mr. Ludlow.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Louis! Girl here!”
A moment later, Louis the Lawyer came out to meet me. He was gaunt, middle-aged, and dressed in a brown corduroy suit. As he walked me to his desk in the next room, he said, “Don’t mind Belinda. She’s a real bitch. But she’s totally broke and has a bunch of awful health problems, so at least it’s understandable. But she wouldn’t have all those health problems if she weren’t so fat!” I was reasonably confident that Belinda could hear everything he was saying.
Once we’d sat down, Louis explained the kind of work I would be doing. “We’re not exactly a law office, per se. What we do is sort of compile legal cases and send them out in mailings. Like here” — he brandished a newsletter at me — “we have something about a car recall” — page-flip — “and here’s something about a hair loss suit, and a rodeo.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I nodded. “So what we’d want you to do is gather these, sort them, prepare mailings, organize address lists, that sort of thing. How does that sound?”
“Okay, good. Now let me show you your other project.” He swiveled around to face his computer. “My daughter is in grad school now. We thought she was a real fuck-up when she was younger because she did so poorly in school, but it turned out she was just artistic! So we sent her off to an arts boarding school, y’know, and then she went to college to study filmmaking. Almost failed out, because she really is pretty dumb, but she made it through and now she’s doing this grad school thing. Her thesis is about advertising and the words used in advertising.”
“Wait, I’m sorry: is she a filmmaker or does she study marketing now or — ?”
“She’s a filmmaker. So anyway, we have this program here with words from advertising, and she’s going to look at frequency and trends and things like that, but we need to sort out the unimportant ones. So just — look, see, just uncheck the box next to words that we don’t want. Like ‘a,’ ‘the.’”
“What about that one? ‘Many’?”
“No, no, we should keep that. ‘Many,’ like ‘a lot.’ Yeah, that seems important. Let’s uncheck ‘cars,’ though, we don’t need that one.”
He proceeded to scroll through a page of words and decide which words were or weren’t important pretty much randomly.
“So yeah, that’s what you’d be doing. There’s a couple hundred pages of words to get through, so that should keep you busy for a while.”
I took over the mouse and started to uncheck boxes, also basically at random. As I did, he suddenly blurted:
“Have you ever heard the term ‘helicopter parents’? It’s used to describe this new phenomenon of parents who don’t stop involving themselves in their kids’ lives, even after they’re grown.”
I nodded vaguely. Was he about to explain why he was hiring a high-school student to work on his daughter’s graduate thesis?
“Yeah, so, you should probably tell your dad not to come with you to interviews. You need to be independent.”
I stammered a reply — “I don’t have a car of my own?” — and went back to checking boxes. He kept talking. After 10 minutes or so, he stood up.
“So, I was thinking I’d pay you five bucks an hour. It’s not that I don’t think your time is worth more, it’s just that I don’t think the work is worth more! And I’d like to pay in cash, under the table. Payroll taxes can be a real bitch, you know?”
You wouldn’t believe how much I burned-without-tanning in my backyard that summer.