Social Engineering Versus Helicoptering

Dr. Delaney Ruston – Quick Pledge update: It was wonderful having so many people sign up for our Pledge to make one tiny screen time change. I pledged not to go on my computer for work after dinner for a week. (Normally, I always have some nights screen-free but not usually seven days). As part of the pledge, I talked to my kids about my goal. My daughter liked my goal and the whole idea of “because” and “instead.” Thinking of all you fellow Pledgers kept me on track! I would love to know how things went for you — please email me at, and with your permission, I will do a future blog of people’s goals (not with anyone’s names).

Today I feel it’s paramount to talk about our kids’ current shaken-up social worlds. Many parents are telling me that their children are languishing when it comes to having in-person social activities. Yes, there is more in-person school, but many youth still feel lonely, unseen, and unsure of things. 

This can be so tricky for us parents — especially when our kids are teens. The last thing we want to do is helicopter parenting. That said, we, as parents, should be applying scaffolding and can experiment with trying to help in different ways. The type of help will vary depending on our kid’s ages and situations, but I want to make sure we are all aware that there is a role for our social engineering at times. 

Let me reiterate, this is tricky and won’t always go well. If you’ve seen Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, you may recall when my daughter called me out for having contacted the debate team, hoping to get info in a way that could entice her to join the club. That sure backfired!

But that said, there are far more times than I, or my husband, have actively helped with social engineering, for which our kids have thanked us. Over the years, I have spoken with many psychologists who work with youth about all the ways they coach the parents in skillful social engineering.

Two final points before I make some suggestions for social engineering:

Remember, a little can go a long way-– even just one good social encounter in a week can have a significant positive impact. 

Remember, if things backfire, as they will at times, your intentions are goodSo if you hear something like, “Oh mom, how could you?!” Own it. Say something like, “Yep, I agree that didn’t go so well. My intentions came from love, but I take full ownership that it was not a great idea on my end.” 

So here are some examples that now, as we emerge cautiously out of Covid, you may consider experimenting with:  

  1. Last week I was reconnecting with a high school friend and was delighted when she brought her 10th grader over.  The three of us had an enlightening conversation about the content of T.V shows made for teens. I, too, raised my kids bringing them with me at times to interact with adults. It’s something they have usually really enjoyed in part because adults frequently show a lot of interest in them. 
  2. Consider a small neighborhood event. For example, a friend and I send an email to all our neighbors once a month to do B.O.P, “Beautify our Planet,” where we take an hour to all pickup trash. It is always a different group that shows up. Two weeks ago, we had about eight kids and four adults. I had fun conversations with the kids. What I love about this activity is even if a child only does this once, I know it will seep into their soul — they will remember consciously or unconsciously the act of meeting with neighbors to do a positive mission.
  3. Organize a “Surprise Zoom.” Contact, for example, your child’s old best friend from kindergarten and be talking to them over Zoom near where your child can hear. Then see their delight when they emerge with a huge surprised look on their face and find their old friend on Zoom and then let them take it from there. 
  4. Consider trying to find a younger child than your own that your child can tutor or play with. Perhaps a younger cousin. Coordinate to see if that parent can ask your child to talk with the cousin about books they had liked when they were their age. 
  5. Now that we can have friends over, how about inviting three families over for brunch outside, and be sure to ask that they bring their kids  — and how cool if, say you have a 12-year-old and they have a 4-year-old, playing with little kids might be just the mood booster your child needed that day. 
  6. How about organizing a DIY party, where everyone learns to sew, bead, crochet, etc.? Parents and kids. 

Ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. Is there something you’ve wanted to learn like cooking, sewing, beading, Pickleball, Catan? I thought it would be fun to invite ____ to do it with us?
  2. If I planned a brunch, who are two families (one parent and one kid, or more) that you’d want to invite?
  3. Can you think of someone from your young days that was your friend and moved away? 
  4. As a family, are there any kids we know who appear to be socially isolated that we might want to see how we can help?