Helicopter Parents

helicopter parents

Photo credit: Tim Elmore/Growing Leaders

Today is Wednesday, July 3, 2013.

Those of us who have taught in inner-city schools haven’t had that much experience with so-called “helicopter parents,” but I know they’re out there. We didn’t use that particular term when I was teaching, but we occasionally referred to a mother as a “dragon lady.”  Interestingly enough, we didn’t have any particular pejorative term for a male parent, although parents of both sexes were demonstrably overprotective of their kids.

My experience with them was mostly when I was teaching Japanese language at the high school level.  There were several incidents in which parents came in to protest the grades I had given their children.  Some won the argument, while others lost, mainly based on how important the grade was and whether I thought it was worth the effort to argue with the parent.  In the cases where the parents got their way, I have to say that I thought everybody lost, because the parents were “fixing” problems by making certain situations go away that their kids might have learned something from.

Other teachers had the same types of problems.  In order to graduate from the high school where I taught, seniors had to complete a “Senior Project.”  The students were given the opportunity to research a subject of their choice, within reason.  (So no, a research project on how to make Molotov cocktail bombs was not allowed.)  The kids were led through the steps in doing research and how to write a finished research paper.  They were given a specific format to follow.  Once the paper was complete, they were introduced to various people from the surrounding community who were experts in the chosen field.  The student was to spend time with the adult mentor (and the mentor was asked to log time spent with the student), and to make or perform something that illustrated what they learned.  (We had film projects, original pieces of music, various pieces of art, machines, etc., martial arts demonstrations, and students who taught other students a particular skill.)  The students then gave a short talk in front of an audience of their peers and  a panel of judges made up of teachers and community members who had some expertise in the field.  The student talked about his or her research and what he or she learned, then answered questions from the panel and the audience.  The final process was a little bit like defending a Master’s degree thesis, on a basic level.  The project took the whole year, and was coordinated by the English department.

The teachers had told the kids that they could get an A for satisfactory work, a B for work that was “OK” but not their best, or an F, which meant “try again.”  The student could re-submit work at any point in the process to get an A or a B and have the F erased.  Kids were graded not in competition with each other or “on a curve,” but strictly on the basis of whether the student actually seemed to learn something and whether the kid did his or her personal best.  It was possible, therefore, for a “special education” student to get an A if he learned something and did his best work.

Especially the first year, a lot of students and their parents complained.  One girl’s mom wrote the paper for her and handed it in, apparently unaware of the format that the teachers had set for papers.  The writing was recognizably not the daughter’s work. Since the girl had not done the writing at all, the teachers gave the girl an F to see what would happen.  Predictably, the mother came in to complain.  At one point, the mom blurted out, “I spent hours on that paper!”

“That’s the problem, ma’am.  This is not about you.  It’s about your daughter.  She spent no time on this at all and learned nothing.  She gets an F.  If she wants to graduate, she will have to write the paper herself.”

And, of course, that meant that the girl had to stay after school and write it in the classroom, where the teacher could keep an eye on her.  Which meant that the teacher had to stay after school, too.

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I had another kid fail my course in Japanese because he did almost zero work for the class and consistently got an F in all the unit tests.  He was basically in my class because his girlfriend was there.  The following year he wanted to try out for the basketball team, but the school rule was “no pass, no play.”  I remembered calling the father of the boy and hearing the man whine that he had trouble controlling his son.  I was supposed to magically come up with a way to fix the situation, but my attitude was, “If you can’t get a handle on your son, what makes you think I can?”  When the father complained that I hadn’t informed him in writing, I was able to show him a piece of paper on which I had scribbled “copy to father” the previous year.  I felt badly that the young man couldn’t play basketball, but what’s the sense of making a rule if it is broken all the time?

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Another young man whose father was a lawyer threatened to sue the school if I didn’t give his son an A, when I had clearly outlined how the kids could get an A and this student’s work was clearly not A work.  I had also recommended him to go on a special trip to Japan the following summer.  I felt used, but by the time the issue came up, it was nearly the end of the school year and I was preparing to move out of town.  The vice-principal and I agreed to let it go, both of us knowing that this particular parent was not doing his son any favors.

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Not long ago I heard a story from a kindergarten teacher, who said that the mother of a prospective kindergarten student came to the “kindergarten round-up” meetings for parents, held in the spring before their child enters kindergarten.  The mother wanted to know who was going to feed her child.  The teacher, aghast, said, “Well, your son is going to have to feed himself.”   Apparently, the mother had been spoon-feeding her five-year-old son since birth.  At the time the story was told, we were wondering whether the child would have the requisite manual dexterity to write, if he hadn’t yet learned to feed himself.

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There have been a number of articles citing research that comes to this very conclusion.  Helicopter parenting backfires most of the time.  Parents who intervene when their kids have problems in high school and college are taking away their kids’ opportunity to solve their own problems and to deal with failure in acceptable ways (such as figuring out how to do better next time.)  There are apparently even parents who intervene for their kids with the company that they work for, or are interviewing for.  These days, when companies get calls from parents, job offers are withdrawn and the young people may even be let go from the job.  Companies want to know how well the young person they have hired can problem-solve, not now mommy and daddy can make problems go away for their spoiled children.

Psychologists who deal with helicopter parents say that the kids often suffer feelings of incompetence, and they become dependent, neurotic, and narcissistic.  Allowing kids to experience setbacks should start early.  Let them experience failure in little ways and talk with your child about ways to do better next time, so that when more important problems crop up, your child will have some coping skills to rely on.  One rule of thumb is to wait two days, then ask if the child is still having the same problem.

It’s great when parents are willing to help their kids with homework, as long as the kids actually do the work.  If mom or dad can explain a crucial point, or invent ways for the child to practice a skill at home, so much the better.  If mom or dad does the science project, the math homework, or the term paper for the student, nobody wins.  :-/


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