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.