If Parents are the Helicopters, Then Schools are their Rotors

Talk abounds regarding an epidemic of helicopter parenting — parents bowing to their toddlers’ every whim, spoon-feeding their teenagers, and chopping up their college students’ proverbial vegetables. College professors, high school teachers, and employers alike complain that all of this parental helicoptering is resulting in a generation of immature, entitled, and, ultimately, incompetent students and workers.

And when I’m wearing my psychologist hat, I’m no exception to this parent-blaming trend — as a researcher studying the links between parent-child relationship quality and children’s mental health problems, much of my own work has focused on unearthing parenting behaviors that can contribute to increased feelings of helplessness and anxiety in children.

One of the toxic behaviors that emerges again and again is parental control — too much parental influence over children’s wishes and thoughts, and heavy-handed parental involvement in tasks that should belong squarely within the child’s own purview. There’s too much infantilizing, too much protection from criticism, distress, and realistic feedback from the outside world. All of this behavior is, in fact, associated with worsening anxiety in children and teens, which does not bode well for their ability to confront challenges.

And while I stand behind the findings of my own and others’ work on this topic, I have recently had a new realization regarding this debate over helicopter parenting: It’s not just the parents!

The requirements that schools impose on parents make it nearly impossible not to helicopter around your children. For instance, as the parent of elementary-aged children, each week I have to sign off on between 10 and 20 tasks that my third grader should have completed. If I forget to leave my John Hancock in just one place on that paper, a note comes home to me regarding the importance of tracking my child’s homework progress. This happens even when my child has completed her homework.

Reading and math fact review has to be done on a daily basis in the presence of a parent, which of course I also have to sign off on. All work completed during school hours also must be reviewed by a parent and corrected by the child (with the parent’s assistance). At higher levels of schooling, parents are told to track their children’s grades, which are updated on a weekly basis, through websites the school districts use. This means that parents are put in the position of reminding their teens to complete a missed assignment, and calculating how many points a teen needs to earn on a test in order to get a B.

Now, in general I am not worried about whether or not my children complete their homework — in my view, it is their responsibility to learn, through trial and error if necessary, about the importance of discipline, detail-orientation, and responsibility. However, these rigid school-imposed guidelines have induced in me a moderate level of anxiety — I worry about what the teacher will think of me when I fail to review an assignment. Even during the times when my child does not want to read, which I think should lead to natural consequences (reduction in grade, for example), my own fears of looking like an uninvolved parent creep up and I go the extra mile in encouraging my child to read.

So what happens to parents who ARE more anxious about their children’s performance? I see a lot of these parents in my clinical practice, and what I now realize is that the expectations set by schools turn these parents into whirling dervishes of anxiety. These parents need to be told that children are capable of making their own choices and that in failure there is growth. Instead, today’s teachers magnify and echo their worst fears — that somehow they will be to blame if their child stumbles.

Surely this cannot be what the schools and teachers want. Surely their intent in creating greater parent accountability is to involve disengaged parents in their children’s lives. Or maybe they are reacting to increasing pressures put upon them by higher level administrators or government, such as the need to raise test scores (a la No Child Left Behind), and they are then unintentionally transferring their stress and anxiety onto the parents. Alternatively, it may even be that teachers are reacting to the demands placed on them by parents from years past – potentially the highly anxious, helicoptering ones — requests for incessant updates on their children’s academic progress or questions regarding what grade their children need to earn on the next test to get an A in the class. And so they have responded to helicoptering of their teaching by instituting procedures that create the perfect storm for controlling parent behavior regarding schoolwork.

Regardless of what the cause is, one thing is clear to me: if we want to raise self-sufficient, motivated adults, then we need to start by cultivating these qualities in them early on. And we can only do so if parents are encouraged (by teachers and others) to challenge children to take on responsibility, even when it means falling down.