Helicopter parenting and bulldozer parenting are bad for everyone — including parents

Parents: It’s time to reclaim our roles, and confidence, as the arbiters of what’s important to us when it comes to our kids’ educations.
Illustration of parents and teacher hovering over a stressed out kid.
Parents have somehow gotten the message that if “parental involvement” is good, then complete and total parental control and oversight must be great.Claire Merchlinsky / for NBC News
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By Meagan Francis

If you’re like many parents, sometime in the last month or so you gave up the better part of a weekday evening to attend back-to-school night. Perhaps you stuffed your body awkwardly into a tiny chair made for second-graders while obediently writing down field trip dates. Maybe you leaned forward eagerly as you learned about the new grading system your sixth-grader faces, seeking reassurance your child won’t be overwhelmed in this unfamiliar system.

Even if we’d prefer to opt out, we don’t want to look bad to other parents or, worse, to our kids’ teachers.

Or maybe, like me, you sat in a 10th-grade classroom zoning out as the teacher shared details about an online “parent portal” you know you’ll never check, half-listening to the same questions that whizzed by when your older two children were in this grade — queries about retest policies and weighted GPAs and extra credit. And perhaps, like me, you thought to yourself: “Why are we still doing this? My son is almost 16. Shouldn’t knowing — and caring — about all this stuff be his job by now?”

Anyone? Bueller?

Listen, I know that the biggest indicator of success in school-aged kids is parental involvement. How could I forget? The media is constantly banging that gong via books, articles and nightly news programs. And it seems most of us have gotten the message; the percentage of students whose parents report attending meetings, conferences and school events reached an all-time high in 2016.

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But is that such a great development? We’ve also been told that kids who aren’t allowed to figure things out for themselves — even if it means occasionally falling or failing — can develop anxiety and a kind of learned helplessness instead of the resilience they need to become successful adults. And less discussed, but also problematic, is the effect on parents.

The vague mandate to “be involved” can lead to stress and guilt for time- and resource-strapped parents — and resentment in those of us who’d rather our relationship with our kids revolve around something besides worksheets and study guides. But even if we’d prefer to opt out, we don’t want to look bad to other parents or, worse, to our kids’ teachers. Add to that generalized anxiety about competitive college admissions processes, debt and our children’s future success, and you’ve got a recipe for a pressure-cooker environment that is as bad for parents as everyone else.

As a result, we have gotten used to setting aside our own opinions about what’s best for our kids and looking anxiously to authority figures to tell us what’s right. But ultimately, parents, the responsibility lies with us: It’s time to reclaim our roles, and confidence, as the arbiters on what’s important to us when it comes to our kids’ educations, and what we’re willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

Ask Jess Lahey, a mom, high school teacher and author of “The Gift Of Failure: How The Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Child Can Succeed.” Lahey often gets asked to speak at schools, and she tells the kids she addresses that they can give her a question or comment she’ll share with parents at a separate session. “It’s always things like, ‘I have nothing of my own, my parents surveil the portal constantly and read all my texts.’” Or, “I’m not allowed to do anything for myself.”

Lahey also asks students to close their eyes and raise their hands “if you really and truly believe your parents love you more when you bring home high grades, and less when you bring home low grades.” In middle school, the number of kids who raise their hands is around 80 percent. In high school, it’s closer to 90 percent. She recalls that a student got an “all caps, yelly text” from his mother during one assembly because she saw via the portal that he’d gotten a poor grade. The mark was actually a mistake, but she’d lathered herself into a fit before her child had a chance to see the grade for himself or correct the error. Who wants these kind of relationships with their kids?

Yet for all the ill effects we read about “helicopter parenting,” anxious hovering to prevent a child from being hurt or feeling bad, and now even “bulldozer parenting” — a more active style in which parents badger teachers, professors and even employers, or simply do the work of succeeding for their child — we live in a culture that pressures us to take on these behaviors even as we criticize them.

Part of the reason behind this mental tug-of-war between the kind of parents we’d like to be and the kind we feel we should be is that nobody seems to agree on what the appropriate level of parental involvement is. I have shepherded five children through public schools in Michigan and parochial school in Chicago and I’ve received all levels of demands. Between my eighth- and 10th-grade sons alone, my boys have 12 teachers this year. One tells me that if my child has a problem, he should go directly to the teacher (hooray!); another asks me to check his planner daily to keep up on assignments (mehhh).

Logically, I should be able to do what I believe is best for my kids in each circumstance rather than changing my parenting style to suit each individual teacher’s preference. Practically, that’s easier said than done. Many others who also don’t know exactly how to strike that balance seem to go strongly in the cover-your-ass direction of the more involvement, the better.

Lahey experiences the cognitive dissonance of these mixed messages regularly. “Schools invite me to come talk about how to support kids by backing off. Those same schools don’t realize that when they tell parents to check kids’ grades via a portal or keep in regular touch with teachers, they’re inadvertently sending the exact opposite message.”

But while portals persist, it’s not because teachers just love giving parents real-time access to grades. Most of the teachers I know dislike them, and Lahey says that’s backed up by her conversations with thousands of them. They get nagged by parents if they don’t get the grades in fast enough, and some — armed with technology that allows to contact teachers day and night — will send them a text about the B- their child got without their kid having any idea of what’s going on. “It just produces a lot of unnecessary anxiety” for everyone, Lahey notes.

Can we parents set limits on how often we take advantage of our newfound 24/7 access to teachers, like we do with our childrens’ screen time?

So how to cure it? The first thing Lahey tells schools to do is to inform parents they can’t drop off stuff, like forgotten homework, after the first bell. It might sound harsh, but that rule can help parents understand that the school isn’t only interested in good grades but in instilling individual responsibility. Lahey points out that this policy also creates a more equitable system, since the parents dropping off forgotten homework at 10 a.m. are typically not shift workers or those using public transportation.

Putting limits around how often those portals can be checked, or updated, could also help. And can we parents set limits on how often we take advantage of our newfound 24/7 access to teachers, like we do with our childrens’ screen time?

Ultimately, the cure lies with us. It’s only too easy to abdicate our responsibility and accept whatever cultural ideal is being thrown at us. Instead, we have to have the courage to decide what’s important to us, communicate it to our kids’ schools and then stay the course regardless of how much peer pressure we face.