Meet the Micromanagers!
When Parental Involvement Goes Bad
The initial signs may be subtle. First, Dad pulls up to school midday asking to “check in” on how his child is doing. Mom swings by to drop off extra snacks and a missing homework assignment. Next, you hear they’ve telephoned the principal’s office to ensure that their child is being “sufficiently challenged.” What’s that droning sound you hear? It’s the helicopter parents on the horizon, and their descent spells bad news for your students’ growth as independent learners.
In elementary school, these are the parents who hang around after the bell rings and elbow out any other would-be parent volunteers. In middle school, they follow their kids’ grades meticulously, demanding to know the results of every assignment and quiz, no matter how small. In high school, they keep tabs on their kids via cell phone, texting them during class. Along the way, they’re helping their kids complete their assignments, from math worksheets to college essays, and placing unprecedented demands on teachers.
To be sure, dedicated parenting isn’t something to deride. Most so-called helicopter parents have only the best intentions, and many teachers would be grateful for more parental involvement, not less. But over-involved, oppressive parents who micromanage their kids’ schedules, classwork, and even relationships can damage kids’ emotional and academic growth. Eventually, all children need to learn to solve their own conflicts and distinguish important issues from niggling ones. How can you nurture students’ independence when a hovering parent is just a propeller’s length away?
Eighth-grade special education teacher Cindy North wrestles with this question in her classroom at Parkville Middle School in Baltimore County, Maryland. Helicopter parents seem to be ever-present, sometimes using their children as mouthpieces. When students aren’t happy with class rules, they threaten to tell Mom or Dad. “Then you’ll be fired,” the kids tell their teachers.
North remembers once sending a sixth grader home with an assignment to create an art project using math. While meeting with the child’s parent a few days later, North mentioned that she was looking forward to seeing his work. When the mom realized that she hadn’t been told about the project, “she blew up,” says North. But the episode wasn’t over. After school, the child’s parent stormed up to the school building with a representative from the local congressman’s office in tow. The parent demanded to know why North hadn’t told her about the assignment and asked how her child was expected to complete the project without parental help. North’s response that the child had completed the assignment by himself and gotten an A wasn’t enough to satisfy her. After the meeting, North was fuming. “Since when do congressmen get involved in homework assignments?” she remembers thinking, and, in the end, “What was the child learning?”
Where Helicopter Parenting Originates
Helicopter parents are a particular breed and may not affect every district or classroom. Indeed, some schools have trouble recruiting parent volunteers or PTA members. But Hara Marano, author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, says some pockets of society exhibit the opposite phenomenon. “This is now the standard culture of parenting for the middle class and above,” she says. The world seems less safe, competition for jobs has shifted to a global arena, and the future seems uncertain to these largely successful and affluent parents.
“I think the adult response to kids has changed,” concurs Susan Meyer, principal of Meads Mill Middle School in Northville, Michigan. “We really got a shock as a nation with 9/11 and with Columbine; they have changed how people look at the world.” Perceptions of a dangerous, unsettled world are pushing parental anxiety sky-high.
The push for perfection is not simply driven by paranoia. Only a few decades ago, kids could expect to move through school, find a secure job, and stick with it until retirement. But that’s no longer the norm. A 2006 PEW Research Center report found that 50 percent of Americans thought their children would grow up to be “worse off” than people today—making them the first generation expected to fall behind their parents economically. “Nobody knows what the world will look like ten years from now…parents are worried that their child is going to be singularly left behind,” says Marano.
Changes in family dynamics also contribute to the phenomenon. Parents are having fewer children and investing more in each one. Some parents, aware of what went wrong in their own childhood, overcompensate by trying to be their kids’ friends. Others overidentify with their child, entwining the child’s experiences with their own. “If their child is called to task on the soccer field, the parent feels wronged,” says Michael Ungar, professor at Dalhousie University in Canada and author of Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive.
Nevertheless, helicopter parents are driven by the best of intentions: for their kids to have a positive childhood experience. And who can blame them for wanting what’s right for their kids?
How You Can Ground the Helicopters
Not surprisingly, the helicopter phenomenon can make some teachers feel like an air traffic controller. In the 34 years that North has been teaching, she’s seen the relationship between teachers and parents deteriorate. “Back in the mid-’70s, parents had a lot of respect for the institution of education,” she says, “and viewed teachers as people who were helping their child.” Now, she says, “parents are questioning teachers’ every move, and, in particular, every decision about their individual child.” Too often, says David Elkind, professor emeritus at Tufts University, these parents “don’t acknowledge the teacher’s experience or professionalism.” And when they have a concern, they want it dealt with now.
New technologies, such as cell phones and online gradebooks, connect parents to their kids in unprecedented ways—and sometimes the results are more difficult for you. If you use a service like ParentConnect or EdLine, parents receive feedback on every assignment, and may send half a dozen e-mails about a quiz worth less than two percent of a student’s grade. Kids can also send their parents an update as soon as you return a test or paper: According to a 2008 CTIA/Harris Interactive study of 2,000 teenagers, 80 percent of teens own a cell phone—up 40 percent from 2004.
“Teachers are aware of the hovering,” says Richard Weissbourd, lecturer on education at Harvard, “and can feel that their job is on the line if they don’t handle parents well.” Helicopter parents often respond to their kids’ setbacks by threatening to go to the media or take legal action. Some parents, says Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental psychologist, will sue for the littlest things—injuries, harassment at school, or unfair grades. A 2004 MetLife survey found that 31 percent of teachers feel parent management is their biggest challenge. And some teachers are responding by protecting themselves; the insurance company Forrest T. Jones reported a 25 percent increase in teacher insurance between 2000 and 2005.
At every level, schools have to address helicopter parents head-on, without sacrificing child development. At Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, Dr. Marisa Crandall, director of education and counseling services, explains to parents that kids need to learn how to tolerate frustration, delay gratification, negotiate, and advocate for themselves in school. “I always talk about it in terms of healthy development,” she says, and more often than not, parents agree. In other schools, principals and teachers are implementing policies to address parent-teacher interaction and use of technology. Karen Bernstein, band director at Howard B. Mattlin Middle School in Plainview, New York, uses SchoolNotes.com to communicate with parents, which allows for back-and-forth without intruding on her privacy.
While hovering parents can be bothersome, remember that they are interested foremost in their child’s success and well-being. Following are some guidelines to help you articulate to helicopter parents what their kids need in order to grow into independent and successful adults.
Validate Parents’ Concerns,but Establish Boundaries
Helicopter parents conflate love for their children with their own anxiety. Be sensitive to that and acknowledge how much parents really do care, says professor Ungar. The first step is to always exude confidence, as a nervous teacher leaves parents’ trust shaky. “Radiate the air of ‘I’m in charge, I’ve got the classroom under control’ and that will diminish parents’ anxiety,” says Alvin Rosenfeld, child psychologist and author of The Overscheduled Child. When a parent comes to you with a concern, “don’t say, ‘Really? I don’t think we need to meet about that matter,’” agrees Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. You will look like you’re apathetic or distracted and the parents will only get more worked up.
You will need to set up boundaries in order to deal with these parents as well. Don’t wait until you’re exasperated to establish a no-grade-change policy: Set your grading policies and classroom rules in September. Make your expectations clear, advises Wiseman, so that if a parent contacts you over a sub-par grade or discipline matter, you both are “not just basing this on a ‘he said, she said’ thing.” Instead, you can point out that your rules clearly state that late assignments automatically suffer one full letter grade or that text messaging in class results in a detention.
Wiseman also advises you to send home a letter that explains how parents can communicate their questions and concerns and what your protocols are for getting back to them. For example, you can request parents summarize their problem in a one-sentence e-mail and promise you’ll be sure to respond within 48 hours.
Show Parents That Kids Have To Experience Consequences
Experiencing what happens when you forget your homework or receive a bad grade is exactly what kids need to develop a sense of responsibility and self-mastery. Nothing may be more wrenching for a parent than to see their child in pain, but sheltering kids from the inevitable hardships of life hurts them more. Though it may be difficult for teachers, Ungar also suggests telling parents straight up, “All children need to foster their independence. You have a good point about XYZ—now what does your child need developmentally?”
Kids have to learn how to deal with negative feelings when they’re young, says Chestnut Hill’s Crandall, so when they’re older they can deal with those feelings appropriately. “I’m worried that kids aren’t learning self-regulation skills,” says Crandall, which allow them to function in the world no matter what they face.
Send home a “tip sheet” to guide parents on how to praise or criticize, as well as how much or how little to help with homework, Marano suggests. In the tip sheet, remind parents a mediocre grade can be a blessing, as it’s an opportunity to teach kids the consequences of not studying or not paying attention in class. Likewise, praising a child even if he or she does a bad job can skew their perception of the benefits of hard work. “You’re not telling parents to ‘buzz off’—you’re showing them how to handle their kids in a way that’s not intrusive,” Marano says.
Guide Kids To Solve Their Own Problems
At Meads Mill Middle School, principal Meyer says parents often head straight for her office when they want to resolve an issue. However, she remembers a parent who took it a step further when she arrived in the school cafeteria to solve a conflict between her seventh-grade daughter and a friend. Meyer stepped in and asked the parent to back off. “In the long run,” she says, “that hurts the kids’ relationships.” They don’t learn how to solve problems on their own. It is disabling to children, says Harvard’s Weissbourd, when “they’re perfectly capable of doing these things.”
In middle school, especially, hovering parents may be enabling kids just when they should be encouraging independence. Band director Bernstein encourages her students to manage their own time, but even as she tries to foster independence, parents intervene. They write excuses in their kids’ incomplete practice logs and rush forgotten papers to school instead of letting the kids suffer the consequences. And it doesn’t stop at middle school; parents continue to intervene throughout their child’s high school and college years, and even as they enter the workforce. Colleges and employers are getting used to addressing parent concerns, says Wiseman, and expect some parents to be present on campus or on the job. Some employers have had parents try to negotiate pay increases for their kids or call asking about the status of an application.
You can coach parents to stop playing interference by encouraging them to let kids advocate on their own behalf.
The Silver Lining in the Clouds
No matter how well-meaning they are, it’s unpleasant to handle a hovering parent. But Meyer, who directs upset parents to problem-solve with teachers, says one positive aspect is that it improves teacher communication. Thanks to helicopter parents, teachers are better at addressing parents’ concerns. Parents may seem confrontational, but “it’s just a part of the challenge nowadays,” says Bernstein, “and how wonderful that we have parents who want to be involved.”
Parents’ over-involvement isn’t a commentary on your talents or abilities. Cope with the hovering in a way that preserves your dignity as an educator and nourishes the child to develop autonomy and self-respect. What is best for the kid is what should be most important—don’t let helicopter parents forget it.