A Guide to Grounding Helicopter Parents

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

A Guide to Grounding Helicopter Parents

Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of “How to Raise an Adult,” says every day offers opportunities for kids to build their independence – and that kids can handle far more than trivial tasks like packing their own backpack.

It’s easy to roll our eyes at helicopter parents. Moms and dads who think schools should start and stop at their children’s convenience. Who exude an air of entitlement, and act like teachers should feel lucky to serve such a uniquely talented prodigy.

I did my share of scoffing. Then I became a parent and put my daughter in preschool. I’m not as quick to judge anymore.

Learning Curve-01Today I understand my job as a parent is to set my daughter up with everything she needs to learn. That means keeping her healthy and nourished, sure, but it also means picking a quality preschool and making sure she has extra support when she needs it. If my wife and I don’t advocate for her, who will?

These are socially acceptable concerns for parents. But it’s not always easy to know where that line ends, and helicopter parenting begins. I imagine it’s a balance I’ll try to strike for a long time.

Anna Crotty, a VOSD member with whom we contract for some tech assistance, lives in Del Mar, where parents are fairly affluent. Parents there are in full helicopter mode by the time their kids hit middle school, she says.

Anna had been reading “How to Raise an Adult,” by Julie Lythcott-Haims, so she’d already been wrestling with questions like these. Then, she went with her 12-year-old to middle school orientation night, and stepped into a crowd of 500 hand-wringing parents.

Crotty says she felt sympathy for administrators, who deal with parents hovering over their kids’ homework, or logging in to the school’s parent portal every 10 seconds to check their kids’ grades.

At the same time, she says the advice principals gave parents – “If you want your seventh graders to learn independence, have them pack their own backpacks” – seemed like a comically low bar.

So, Anna had this to ask:

Considering things like school websites, where parents can track grades, are schools actually enabling helicopter parents – and hurting students’ chances to be independent?

Because Lythcott-Haim’s book inspired Anna’s question, I thought she’d be a great person to field it. Some of her responses have been edited for length.

Lythcott-Haims: School leaders and teachers are in a really tough spot these days, particularly in communities where parents are used to doing a lot of hand-holding for their children and exerting influence. Still, I agree with Anna that yes, in many ways they’ve become enablers of overparenting behaviors and are inhibiting opportunities for kids to develop independence – such as the example of the principal setting the independence bar for his middle-schoolers absurdly low.

Middle-schoolers can handle things far more challenging than packing their own backpack.  Take registration – reviewing the forms, signing them and turning them in. Middle-schoolers can handle that, and they probably should, particularly if we want them to be capable of handling it when they’re in high school, or college.

When my eldest began middle school, I caved to the overparenting mindset by filling out the forms and going to registration with him, which meant standing in long lines with hundreds of other parents doing the same. (The lines were so long, in part, because an excessive number of people were there instead of just the new middle-schoolers). When my second child was starting middle school two years later, I’d learned my lesson. She filled out the forms, asked me and her dad for signatures as needed and went off to registration by herself.  The point is, life is full of bureaucracy and our kids have to learn to navigate it.

In terms of counteracting overparenting instead of enabling it, I’ve seen progress at the level of the individual teacher (who, for example, might announce at Back to School Night that parental involvement in homework is absolutely not allowed and a child’s grade will be docked a few points if there’s evidence of any such thing). But in my view, the bolder step would be adopting a school-wide and even district-wide philosophy that proclaims that part of getting an education is taking responsibility and being accountable for one’s own actions, and that as a result, parents doing things kids should be able to do for themselves is highly discouraged and might even be penalized (e.g. completing homework and projects, bringing homework and lunch to school, talking with teachers about the course material and concerns over grades).

MK: How do “parent portals” or school websites factor into over-parenting?

Lythcott-Haims: Parents obsessively checking the school website/portal isn’t good for the teacher, child or parent. Yes, the portal can deliver information quickly when we need it. The question we must ask ourselves as parents is, how frequently do we really need that information? Like the ability to track our children via GPS at all moments, just because the technology is there doesn’t mean we should use it all the time. …

Obsessively checking up on our kids’ performance means we then end up talking with our kids about their academic performance on a weekly or even daily basis – which sends a rather insidious message that their worth and value to us is based on grades – instead of what they’re learning and enjoying about school.  Instead of building a relationship of trust with our kids where we’d expect them to inform us when they are struggling or need help, it erodes trust, raises anxiety and makes our kids feel that every single homework assignment or quiz is a “make or break” moment for their entire future.

As for me, I refuse to look at the online portal. I’m fine with a quarterly report. I expect my kids to update me as needed, and if they don’t, and it turns out there’s a greater consequence such as failing a class, I accept that that’s a part of childhood and something we’ll just have to work through when that time comes.  To me, the developmental benefits to my kids that come from having greater autonomy, privacy and personal responsibility are more important than whatever short-term “win” I could achieve by trying to fix every micro-moment of imperfection.

MK: As a parent, how do I find the line between supporting my child and rendering her helpless?

Lythcott-Haims: The balance between supporting a kid and rendering them helpless is this, which I’m pulling from the work of psychologist Madeline Levine, don’t do things: 1) your kid can already do for themselves; 2) your kid can almost do for themselves or 3) that are based on your own ego.  Our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job by raising our kids to independent adulthood where they’re capable of fending for themselves. Childhood offers innumerable opportunities to build that independence if only we’ll let it.

Ed Reads of the Week

• “Pass/Fail Earns an A-Plus” (Slate)

For high-schoolers intent on getting into a good college and earning scholarships, maintaining a high GPA is more important than anything. That comes at a cost, says one Slate senior editor.

One of the best perks of college is the ability to take classes pass/fail – doing so allows students to take risks and engage new interests without the possibility that doing less-than-perfect will ruin their GPA. “If high school is really all about preparing for college and the real world, give them a real idea of what they have to look forward to: the chance to try new things and open their minds.”

• “Why Is It So Hard to Enroll a Kid in Public School?” (Zocalo Public Square)

Joe Mathews, chronicler of all things California, details all the hoops he had to jump through and endless lines he stood in to get his kid enrolled for school this year.

It doesn’t have to be this way, he tells us. Investing in better data systems would help:

California has failed to follow other states in building a longitudinal database to link individual data from preschool, community college, universities, and employment.

Brown has portrayed the collection of such data as an excess of school reform and as a state imposition on local communities. But such a database provides the best chance for scholars and policymakers to judge how the state is preparing tomorrow’s workers, and for teachers to identify ways to improve. And a comprehensive database potentially could relieve school districts, and parents, of some of the hassles of asking, over and over, for the same information on students.

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