Saturday, September 18, 2010

Guest post: Helicopter parents and hothouse flowers

(From Chris, originally posted at ABlogAboutSchool)

Are “edubloggers” too harsh on their own kids’ teachers? In response to that question (posed here), Doug Johnson argues that by intervening in our kids’ problems at school, we might be

depriving them of some necessary experiences in which they could develop the whole-life dispositions of patience, adjustment, subversion, recognition that the world is sometimes unjust, and discrimination of the important and unimportant. Children raised as “hot house flowers” by parents who step in at the first sign of problem may well fall apart when encountering the first college professor or supervisor who is challenging to work for. Self-reliance is a lovely attribute too often acquired through ugly experiences that are hard for a parent to watch.

I do think that edubloggers are wrong to focus their discontent on teachers. In my opinion, teachers aren’t the problem. Sure, nobody’s perfect, but I have found them to be well-intentioned and trying their best to treat the kids well. When I don’t like what’s happening in the classroom, it’s almost always because of what the teachers are pressured to do because of decisions made at higher levels, usually in response to No Child Left Behind and related policies.

I agree to some extent with Johnson’s points. But I also question some of his premises. I think it’s easy to overestimate the prevalence of “helicopter parents” because they are more noticeable, especially if you’re a teacher. As a parent, I know far more parents who would never consider intervening in their kids’ classroom situation than parents who would. A lot of people who talk about the need to “pick your battles” seem to end up picking none. I guess I’m afraid that, rather than helping the child learn to cope with imperfect situations, that parental strategy often ends up encouraging the child to deny that there are problems at all, to blame him- or herself, or to become passively resigned to the futility of trying to change anything.

It’s also worth asking what coping strategies, other than passive acceptance, are available to a student who has a justifiable complaint about how he or she is being treated at school. It’s certainly worth encouraging the student to raise his or her concerns with the teacher. But then what? Schools are notoriously not democracies. I wonder what lesson gets learned from such an encounter. Is it really about the value of self-reliance? Or is it that resistance is futile?

If today’s kids are insufficiently assertive, it’s probably not because of all those parents intervening constantly in their lives and classrooms. It’s probably because passive acceptance in the face of authority is the lesson schools teach day after day after day.

Johnson gives several examples of “constructive” ways to intervene in a problem situation -- “partnering with the teacher” in parent-teacher conferences, asking for more information about a homework project, making sure the child has satisfying extracurricular activities, or even choosing an alternative school or homeschooling. There is a conspicuous absence from his list: Isn’t there sometimes value in confronting the institution and arguing that it should change? As a parent, isn’t it important to at least sometimes model that behavior? For all the talk about helicopter parenting, the idea of actually complaining about what goes on in the school to a teacher or principal -- public employees paid with taxpayer money to care for the people we love -- seems to strike an awful lot of people as an unpardonable breach of etiquette and decorum. Who is the hothouse flower in that situation?


  1. Chris -- fabulous post, as usual. I agree completely with your point that the teacher is treated as a hothouse flower more than anyone. Everyone tiptoes around, worrying about offending the teacher.

    When my older dd was stuck with a math teacher who bullied her, there was no way she could solve the situation. When I pulled her from the class, I hope the lesson I taught her is that if you get stuck in an abusive relationship, you should walk away. If she had a boss who treated her that badly, she should walk away from him too. It's just not worth it.

  2. And to add, get help when you need it (i.e. your parents). Don't be stoic. Reaching out and breaking down those defenses is not a weakness.

    When schools make fun of helicopter parents, they are often just trying to make it easier on themselves. Long after your child is fading yearbook photo to them, it's still your child. You still have to deal with the fallout. Don't back off just because you are afraid of offending them. If you don't advocate, no one will.

    I've seen helicopter parents and they are frightening. There is a fine distinction. I draw the line at helicopter and nurturing. I know parents who worship their kids and those who nurture them. I'd like to think of myself in the latter category.

    I've raised my daughter to be independent and all that nurturing has paid off. She is resourceful, adventurous and unafraid. She is like this with no thanks, largely, to the schools. We did the work and so did she.

  3. The schools teach about bullying, but only in the context of it being done by one of your peers. According to them, bullying is never done by people in positions of authority. I disagree.

    I am teaching my children in this way (questioning the schools, complaining about problems, etc...). Teaching them that it is important to ask "Why?", to stand up for what is right, to not blindly follow.

    I do pick my battles, and this is the one I've picked. My goal is to have my children be prepared for their lives in the early-to-mid 21st century, and the schools just aren't doing that.

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