The Case for Helicopter-Parenting

I’m a bit of a “helicopter mom” with my dog. A friend very gently introduced me to the term after a chat about the antics of my, then, year-old puppy. I hovered over him at the dog park ready to intervene at a moment’s notice.  At the time, I laughed, because it was true, but it’s not a term meant to inspire pride. That style of parenting sounds overbearing.

But the thing is, while my dog is my furry, four-legged child, he’s not human. Helicopter parenting may be bad for kids who eventually have to become independent members of society, but my dog will never be independent of me. He will rely on me until his muzzle greys. Constant supervision isn’t going to hurt his ability to ‘mature’ and does a lot to keep him safe and out of trouble. This week, a newly-released study validated my pet-parenting style and found some interesting links between personality and pet affection.

Researchers from UC Berkley conducted an online survey with over 1,000 participants from the USA. The survey asked questions about pet preferences (dogs, cats, both or neither), people’s levels of attachment to their pets (measuring traits of “anxious attachment” and “avoidant attachment”), and questions that assessed personality using the “Big 5” traits of human temperament (I talked about this a few days ago): Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

Neuroticism is another name for “emotional stability” where a low score is “more stable” and a higher score is “less emotionally stable”. While high Neuroticism scores are generally associated with worrying, anxiety, and moodiness, this trait is positively correlated with affection for pets. High Conscientiousness was also linked to affection for pets. In general high scores in Conscientiousness tend to be found in people who are organized, good at planning and reliable but at the extreme, inflexible and obsessive.

With regards to attachment type, “anxious attachment” is characterized by needing more reassurance from the object of  affection. Ironically, young “cat people” scored highest in this study’s “anxious attachment” questionnaire.  But when it came to “avoidant attachment” (less affectionate with a more withdrawn personality) both cat and dog people scored low. In general low avoidant attachment with pets was associated with high Conscientiousness, Openness and Extraversion. The researchers hypothesize that higher affection scores and lower avoidant scores are correlated with more attentive and affectional pet owners.

Quite a few of the above traits are associated with overbearing parenting. But while this style of raising children may not ideal, taking this approach to caring for companion animals might be a good thing. However, the researchers are aware that more work needs to be done to determine if higher Neuroticism, Conscientiousness and affection actually correlate with better care.

I don’t have any kids, but I imagine that, like parenting, providing care for your animal is something you need to learn. I’ve got a pretty solid handle on my dog’s needs but I’ve lived with him for four years. I know when he’s stressed, I know when he needs something from me and I know when he’s just being a pain in the butt. But I’ve also done a lot of dog training so I know how to address each of those things, and I know how to ask about those problems. I’m interested to see the results of any future studies linking pet care and human temperament. It’s one thing to love your animal and it’s another thing to know how to provide for them. Based on the correlations between Consciousness for example, I wonder whether high levels of this trait are associated with a willingness to learn about pet care. Is Extraversion associated with joining pet communities or training schools? What about Openness and a willingness to try pet sports? There are some interesting findings here that can open the door to more investigation.

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