16 August 2011

Hovering over Hopscotch

I've been thinking about helicopter parents a lot this summer. While Wikipedia tells me that Foster Cline coined the phrase in a 1990 book, I came to hear the term more via the NYT ever-odd coverage of parenting issues and through disparaging comments from colleagues. I've written a fair bit here over the years about the importance of independence for kids, and I've built my career in part around the ways institutions can help students make a good transition to college (and independence). I like reading Free Range Kids. So you might think I'd be a critic of helicopter parenting myself.

But no. I've spent a lot of the summer simmering about the way the notion of helicopter parenting plays out in our culture. Helicopter parenting is said to be bad. It's said to deprive our children of the chance to learn how to solve problems and work things out. It's said to keep children from learning how to play independently. It's said to get in the way of teachers doing their jobs. eu retesting language note: in Scandinavia, the analagous term is 'curling parent.')

But......the thing is, I've read a lot more text about helicopter parenting than I've seen in real life. I occasionally have a parent call me to talk about their college student child (not even once a year). I explain that I can't talk about the student's record, but explain the general policy issue at hand or explain the course and tell to encourage their child to talk to me directly. I hear stories of parents who are over involved in their children's sports ( but CG doesn't run in those competitive sports circles.) I imagine that anyone reading this might have a story to tell about Parents They Have Seen Behaving Badly, but on the whole, helicopter parenting is something I've read about more than I have observed.

So let's think about whAt I have been told parents should do. Be Involved in Your Child's Education! Parents are home partners of the school, we're told by the principal. Rightio then: you want me to be involved, just not too much. My sister and brother-in-law are teachers, and a few weeks ago I had dinner with them and two other teacher friends of theirs, one of whom works in a district that,s been taken over by the state. The teachers are getting paid for an extra 4 days of professional development and the school year has been lengthened. My brother-in-law's first question: are they requiring parents to come to those workshops, too? We all laughed, but again the implication: the problem with parents is that they are not involved. Unless the problem is that they are too involved.

I've been sensitive to this issue lately because we've been wondering for the past 2 years what to make of the fact that CG has been saying she's not good at math. Sometime in the fall of 1st grade, I mentioned it to her teacher, that CG was getting pretty frustrated at home whenever some calculation needed to happen and she was verbalizing that she wasn't good at math. 7 years old seemed a little young to start buying into this cultural script (especially for girls). Not to worry, said the teacher. She's meeting all the standards, and it's ok if she counts on her fingers. After all, your fingers are always with you! But second grade has now come and gone, and the same math panic has continued. And inefficient counting on fingers. And continued shrieks of I CAN'T DO MATH. Yet still, the teacher said she couldn,t understand why CG would say this. She was meeting standards. She was fine. We should just continue to point out all the ways math comes up in daily life (counting change, cooking, counting place mats needed, etc.)

Except she isn't. Make a long story short, after several more conferences, the teacher finally agreed to have the district math coordinator do an informal assessment, which revealed that CG has erratic understandings of the math curriculum so far. While there are some big conceptual areas where she is performing at the highest levels (she is awesome at fractions, e.g.) there are some basic things about numbers that she couldn't do. And those areas, the district coordinator says, could really start holding her back. Her conclusion: CG just needs to play! And practice math as it comes up in everyday life! Her recommendation: hopscotch. In other words, you just need to play with your kid and she will learn what she has been missing.

Bull. Granted, we haven't ever set up a hopscotch board that counts by 2 or by 5, but I don't really think that would matter. We never did flashcards (never once has any teacher suggested them for anyone) but we have, since CG could talk, gotten her to help measure, cut, count, and order things. When the district coordinator finally understood that I was mightily irritated by the suggestion that parental play was the answer after 2 years of my telling teachers that there was something not right about CG's math performances, she backtracked and said that clearly the reason CG did so well on part of the assessment was because of all that parenting. We just need to play in a different way. But where's the role of, say, the math teacher and curriculum?!? Why isn't the math teacher offering clear advice to kids about how to learn what they need to know (instead of leaving it up to parental trial and error and emotional upheaval?)

We haven't been playing hopscotch this summer. CG is using an adaptive online site (Dreambox dot com, a subscription site developed by Pearson publishers), recommended eventually by the district person. We've also gotten her a tutor, a recent Math graduate who comes once a week and has been working with her on math facts. We could do flashcards ourselves, but having Cool Tutor come makes her feel like it's ok to make mistakes and it's possible to learn.

CG would tell you, if she trusted you, that sometimes she gets mad at me because I hover too much. She would probably tell you that I make her do math when she doesn't want to, and if she could read about helicopter parenting she might say that my attention to her math is something she doesn't want. But....if it weren't for our pushing the teacher so hard this year about what has turned out to be 2 years of my child struggling to learn a key part of the math curriculum, CG would just be heading into another year destined to fall further behind. (and if it hadn't been for the feeding journal I kept when she came, her serious medical problems wouldn't have been diagnosed right away, but that's another story).

In terms of math, things are getting better. It's a complicated situation, and CG needs to figure out how to remember some facts as well as how to access what she knows when she's nervous. It's coming, although I have lost faith in the teacher assessments and I have little faith in the district math curriculum. And mostly, I'm done with criticisms of helicopter parents. There are conversations to be had, for sure, about how to foster independence and how to help kids learn to fail and succeed. But the discourse around helicopter parenting serves largely to slam parents for whatever we (don't) do. And that, I have decided, isn't helping me sort out how to raise the powerful, articulate, and capable young woman I see CG yearning to become.


Ianqui said...

I don't really think that demanding help or services for your child from the school is helicopter parenting. I guess I don't think of HP as the actions you take when your child is actually struggling in a fundamental area--that's just good parenting. To me, HP is when you go above and beyond to push your child in areas that aren't so critical to their intellectual or social development--like doing everything you can to make them be the BEST soccer player when maybe they just want to have fun playing soccer.

Jody said...

I agree with you, Susan. I've seen "helicopter parent" used to disparage any parental involvement that the speaker doesn't like, even as the speaker talks for half an hour about the necessary interventions and actions he/she has taken to help his/her child. It's apparently really easy to identify helicopter parenting, and it's always done by someone else.

I have heard a LOT of stories similar to yours from parents in the last five years. I don't necessarily BLAME the schools, but as a good friend says, her kid doesn't require mandated services only because they the parents spend enormous time and money on private tutoring to give their child the necessary math and language skills. What is wrong with the current system if your child can pass the assessments (and they are not necessarily easy assessments, either) and still know that she's not really getting math?

I don't know the answer, but the problem is frighteningly widespread.

liz said...

It's frightening to me that her teachers weren't concerned.

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,

So nice to hear your voice here...W is now heading into the sixth grade -- and as a former community college instructor in english -- I was completely appalled when I had what little interaction i had with the Language Arts team at his school -- I hate to be THAT step-mother (and mother when the time comes for Z) -- I'm the daughter of a public school educator, the sister of one -- saw the bottom half of what those schools produced -- and they are trying -- I don't doubt the hearts of those teachers -- but by in large they are failing -- and current policy makes it no better. Those standards they are meeting (and we heard the same with W's reading) are unbelievably low -- and so much -- too much slips through the cracks.

We ultimately sent W to one of those supplemental tutoring services -- which did help him fill in those gaps.

It's incredibly frustrating to not believe in public education but I just don't.


Now I'm depressed.



Anonymous said...

My experience of the phrase "helicopter parenting" was that it was used to describe excessive direction of a child's social and academic life in high school/college.

Working in student life, I have LOTS of experience with helicopter parents. You do NOT want me to get started on this one, but the thing we always say after hanging up from Mrs. Smith who wants me to arrange for a new room for her daughter because the current roommate talks too much is "this isn't elementary school."

The point of which is your daughter IS in elementary school! She SHOULD be hovered over and loved over and you should be able to demand more for her.

I think helicopter parenting is just a phrase used by people who don't like the way that someone else is parenting.

And I hope math gets better for CG.

susan said...

The helicopter parenting association came up, for me, in the repeated sense that both her 1st and 2nd grade teachers thought we were worrying too much over normal performance. To be fair to them, CG has massive inhibitions about showing frustration in public, and she has very good social skills, so they don't see her getting frustrated in a public group setting. She can just appear to be happily going along with the flow and participating in a group while being lost in her thoughts. And she would never flip out at school the way she can at home. These two teachers, the second grade one in particular, didn't seem particularly comfortable teaching math (lack of math education in el-Ed teacher programs is a huge problem, but that,s also another post). I have some sympathy, then, for their lack of noticing it--but no sympathy for the way in which they kept saying 'she’s fine,' rather than 'hmmm, let,s figure this out.'. They were busy putting effort into getting the students who were below grade level to meet standards.

I am also frustrated at how their own assessments don't seem to be working. Because the school is not making adequate yearly progress a la NCLB, the teachers have regular data-driven curriculum planning meetings. But it appears that the math and reading assessments don't actually evaluate students accurately, ESP from year to year. I'm frustrated that NCLB leads to an environment in which the concern is to push failing students up to standards, and not to get every student moving along.

Ack.....thanks for listening, everyone!

Arwen said...

I think "helicopter parenting" for *me* - knowing I'm only one view - is less about parents and more about the culture we're raising our kids in. It's what ends up happening to parents, with the messages in the general culture.

My community's parenting culture emphasizes:

-> Physical risk minimization to a massive degree. (Gone are the days of teeter totters, wading pools, and walking to school by yourself. Even the use of organics, filtered water, etc, is advertised as a big part of the culture of risk minimization.)

-> A strong sense of parental control and responsibility in a child's overall outcome (when my parents were kids, their poor behaviour or performance was seen as their own rather than their parents'.)

-> A strong sense of parental control and responsibility towards preventing misfortune of all types.

We're a hyper-vigilant group, but we're told to be, or that somehow hyper-vigilance will guarantee safety. I would say the story I'm hearing you tell is somewhat different from the hyper-vigilant parenting ethic. Vigilance isn't hyper-vigilance, you know? Different sense of control.

Vigilance knows that into every life some pain will fall, and when it does, you'll deal with it.

Hyper-vigilance tries to prevent pain from occurring. I would suggest some of our governments have gotten very hypervigilant, what with scatterplots in airports and CCTV all over the place.

I'm hearing you say that CG needs help and already has pain, and you are helping her work it out and be resilient. That's a different focus.

But of course, in this culture, we ALL are somewhat influenced by a heightened sense of responsibility and control.

Anonymous said...

The culture around parenting and childhood has changed dramatically since the 50s and 60s and one can't, as an isolated parent, swim against the tide. We don't all have four or five kids who can be sent outside to play with the four or five kids in the family next door, as in my own childhood. Maybe kids lose out on alone-time or time without adults telling them what to do. But they gain in closeness and interactivity with their parents, on the whole. I don't feel any shame or guilt about hovering near my son, sometimes, as I know I've also left him with his own thoughts, as an only child, many other times.
Strangely, given that we have a boy who's now 12 and live in a different country, we've had a similar maths story to yours. He always appeared to do well in the eyes of his primary school teachers but to me it was clear he just didn't get some aspects of maths. Come to 2011 and his first year in secondary school, in a 'gifted' class (he's gifted in English) and the very experienced male maths teacher told us straightfrowardly that our boy did not get some fundamentals and needed tutoring to catch up. I was so grateful! We instantly enrolled him in a maths coaching college which uses some zippy computer program and he loves it and says he's doing really well in school now. As someone who loved maths and feels very confident about it (which not many women do), I was always perturbed by the fact that I hadn't somehow magically passed this on to my boy. I'm sure you're doing the right thing for CG.

Magpie said...

interesting. i always think "helicopter parenting" as referring to the uptight mom who won't let the kid loose on the playground for fear of getting dirty or damaged.

it's good she's getting the math help that it turns out she needs.

Megan said...

I'm glad you finally got an answer - how frustrating that you had to fight for it!

marythemom said...

My kids with severe trauma issues do much better with strict supervision and regulation. All the things that most parenting books say are bad. That's why "our kids" frequently need different parenting and different teaching techniques.

Trauma and possibly poor prenatal care has also caused permanent brain damage for my kids causing them to have gaps, processing issues, poor memory... but not anything global or recognizable as a specific learning disability. In short, school likes to pretend that there is nothing wrong with them or that what is going on has a quick fix - preferably by us.

Good for you for standing up for your child's needs and getting her real help. I wish someone had done that for my children when they were still in elementary school (they didn't come to live with us until they were 11 and 13).

I'm proud of you for being the kind of mom your child needs!