06 October 2009

(R)evolutionary Parenting

When I started my career, there was an animal known as the "stage mother." It was not a new discovery. The species had been cataloged long before I picked up a piece of chalk and cranked a mimeograph, but it represented only a small subpopulation of parents (both male and female). I rarely observed this type of parent in my science classroom; however, it was not uncommon to make field observations in performing arts classes and at athletics events. These were the parents who advocated for their children beyond what might be considered normal...almost to the point of embarrassing both themselves and their children. Teachers, coaches, and administrators received many a pitying glance after coming in contact with the stage mother in his/her native habitat.

And then, sometime in the 90's, a curious thing happened: The stage mother evolved. There was radiation akin to the Cambrian Explosion. Stage mothers were now "Helicopter Parents," and they had developed into a variety of subspecies, adapting to every niche within a school. An invasive species, they even began to occupy college and university habitats.

We've more or less been at this eyerolling state of things ever since.

Schools, however, need to face a cold hard truth in this scenario. After all, the population of Stage Mothers were more or less at equilibrium for decades. What was it about the environment which changed to allow them to become so pervasive? What happened in school settings that allowed them to use their opportunistic behaviors in new ways? You may have your own answer, but I think it has everything to do with the self-esteem movement. This is not to say that I approve of crushing students---ragging on them within an inch of their young lives. But we have started to tell kids that appearance is more important than substance. Your test scores are more important than what you learn. The number of events you can list on your college application is more important than who you are as a person. Being told you're smart is better than actually being smart.

To be sure, we cannot weed out helicopter parents. Stage Mothers will never become extinct, but perhaps we can discourage their growth and abundance. We can prune. We can encourage alternatives. Po Bronson thinks that native parenting types may be making a comeback---A Return of Tough Love. (You can listen to an NPR interview with Bronson and read the first chapter of his book here.) I don't think this will be a simple or quick reclamation project. It means caring about our kids enough to allow them to make mistakes. It means that while parents should continue to want the best for their children, they have to realize that advocacy does not mean your child gets each and every thing you want. It means that while high expectations and positive thinking are wonderful things, it is more important that the child have an internal representation of those...not just external ones. If we try, we can bring back a balance to the ecosystems that are our classrooms.


Cheryl van Tilburg said...

I usually really love your writing, but posts like this one make me a little sad. I'm not denying the existence of true helicopter parents, who grub for grades on behalf of their kids and generally go out their way to intervene in teacher decision making.

But unfortunately the moniker has been hijacked by many school administrators, who use the term to dismissively label any parent who questions policy or tries to participate in discussions on school improvement. I've seen parents accused of "helicoptering" for suggesting that zeros aren't helpful grades, or questioning the logic of poster project upon poster project, for example. These parents aren't intervening just on behalf of their own children -- they're trying to share insights on school improvement that could potentially benefit all students. Their insights deserve consideration (or at least a thoughtful, jargon-less explanation of why things are they way they are). Instead they get the "helicopter parent" label, the eye rolling, and the kiss-off of triangulation ("You're the only parent to ever complain").

So while I understand (and share) your hope that truly self-serving, pain-in-the-neck helicopter parents get a clue, get tough, or get lost, I also hope that administrators don't feel any sense of affirmation regarding their often-crummy approaches to dealing with parent advocacy in their schools. I don't think that's what you intend!

Thanks for writing your blog. It's one I really look forward to seeing in my aggregator.

The Science Goddess said...

You're likely right that the term "helicopter parent" has been hijacked (and misapplied). I think educators have become a bit gunshy in recent years---the few true over-involved parents have made us suspicious of everyone. It's an unfair paintbrush being applied.

Educators do expect (and appreciate) some sort of partnering with parents---it's necessary for student success. I do think that what this looks like is undergoing a lot of changes (look for a post on the PTA later in the week).

Can we get the kinds of relationships we want without either the schools or parents being heavy-handed?

Roger Sweeny said...

One thing that has changed is the number of children most people have. Even into the 60s, families of 4 and 5 were not uncommon. They are hardly seen any more. One or two children is the norm.

When there are that few children, parents can't spread out their concern and worry. And they have correspondingly more time to um, advocate, for each child.

organized chaos said...

NO! We can't let kids make mistakes! (gasp!) What if they learn something? Like maybe they'll learn it is ok to make mistakes?

Great post- I really enjoyed your perspective on the book!

Ms Characterized said...

I understand what Ms. VanTilburg is saying, but I also have to agree with you, Science Goddess.

I see the self-esteem movement as part of it. Everyone gets a trophy, everyone is special, everyone is a cross between Jesus and Einstein.

A corollary to that is what I've called "Carpool Competition" -- parents, who out of fear that their children won't get into the best college, or class, or whatever it is that they quite clearly deserve, pass that stress onto their children. They forget to look at their child for who she is, and instead focus on who she should be. All parents do it to some extent (I know I struggle with it), but parents seem to have become even more myopic.

The last contributor, in my opinion, is online availability for grades (which you've mentioned). Though having grades online has cut down on the surprise factor (Ack! Little Jesus Einstein is getting a B, for God's sake, call a tutor!), it has ratcheted up the expectation for immediate feedback...ALL THE TIME. No more can a student wait for his grade to be averaged out. The second that C appears on the quiz, it goes into the gradebook -- and some grade book programs deliver messages home every night. Can you imagine what that's like for the kid who tanked on a test, with another assessment a week or more down the road? Two solid weeks of a D delivered struight to his and his parents' inbox.

You ask a good question. I don't know if we can get the kinds of relationships we want -- I think trust in the system among administrators, parents, and kids has been eroded. We may never get it back.

The Science Goddess said...

I think someone needs to draw a "Little Jesus Einstein" character...flowing white robes and hair.