Over a quarter-century ago, under President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. Department of Education published an untitled, 49-page booklet that offered advice to parents about how to help their children in school. It was revised and republished in 2002 and 2005, under President George W. Bush, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The booklet represented a significant break from traditional educational orthodoxy. In previous decades, parents were the enforcers. They were supposed to make sure their kids were doing their homework and getting to school on time. That was about it. The business of teaching children to read, write and calculate belonged to the professionals — school principals and teachers. With the 1990s and 2000s came a new philosophy: Parents should play a central role in helping to educate their children, regardless of their own educational backgrounds.
Ever since, parents, caught between new and old educational methods, have struggled to understand what they should and shouldn’t do when it comes to helping their kids in school, and even in life. Many grew up in an era when it was believed — falsely — that children had to make it on their own. If they were failing, it was likely owing to a lack of effort or attention. Leave the child to work it out, the thinking went.
A more progressive form of education was created under the two Bush presidents as well as President Clinton — one in which parents were to become key players in their children’s education. Yes, testing was — and still is — overemphasized. At the core of it, though, our education system changed for the better by increasingly involving parents, from pre-school through high school graduation. Now we are seeing many colleges take up the mantle, forming new partnerships with their students’ parents and guardians.
These initiatives have led to charges, often by old-school critics, that parents are coddling their kids and creating a generation of young people incapable of making it on their own. A new term came into wide use in the lexicon in the early 2000s — “helicopter parent,” defined as micromanagement of a child’s interests and activities, and often a willingness to question teachers’ abilities and authority.
From Psychology Today last year: “Helicopter parenting does kids no favors . . . A new study suggests that helicopter parenting can trigger anxiety in certain kids, adding to a small pile of data suggesting that helicopter parenting stunts kids’ emotional and cognitive development.”
New research also suggests that helicopter parenting, largely practiced by members of Generation X, might actually have its benefits, as long as it’s practiced judiciously, and as long as parents maintain a willingness to listen to their children and those who teach them.
Writing on www.GoodTherapy.org, Vicki Botnick, a marriage and family therapist, noted in 2016, “In these times, when many of us feel alienated from our government, our neighbors, and sometimes our families, it’s worthwhile to rethink the benefits of kids being more connected to their parents. After all, parents started parenting this way for a reason. We were reacting against the free-form, unbounded childhoods we experienced, in which many of us faced daily dangers and years of floundering without oversight or steady guidance.”
According to Botnick, children of so-called helicopter parents tend to feel better supported, as well as a greater sense of attachment to their families and communities. In the end, she points out, these children understand that their mothers and fathers are there for them, so they tend to stay more connected to them when they become teenagers and young adults. They are also more likely to play a role in caring for their parents in old age.
So, what’s the right balance?
The Education Department booklet, which you can find at bit.ly/2NvL9hz, is a good starting point. It suggests that parents play with their children, read with them and talk with them, not once in a while, but often — every day, if they can.
It also says that parents should never allow their children to flounder to the point of failure. When kids are struggling, they need help. It’s a parent’s job to ensure that they find it. After all, most children are incapable of even identifying their own weaknesses, let alone mustering the resources to strengthen them.
It’s about time that we stop throwing kids into the deep end of the pool to see whether they sink or swim. That philosophy led to too many drownings in the past.