There is an awful lot of talk lately about “helicopter parents,” who, we’re told, hover over their children and micromanage their childhoods. Teachers, understandably, find such parents particularly bothersome. Yet I’m struck by how closely schools now hover over kids and micromanage them—and even want me to help with the hovering, way more than I want to.
For example, all three of my daughters now have teachers who require them to obtain a parent’s signature on their homework, planners, tests, and/or reading logs. My wife sits at the kitchen table in the morning as the kids bring their papers for her to sign, like secretaries presenting paperwork to the boss.
My wife is willing to sign them, but I’m not. Here are my objections:
First, the parent signature requirement robs the students of autonomy over their own school work. I want my kids’ school work to be their business. I want them to get experience with being independent and taking care of their own affairs. I think that kind of autonomy is a key ingredient in building a sense of agency and competence. I wrote more fully about that reason in part 1 of this post.
Second, it’s demeaning to make kids prove to you every day that they’ve done their homework. It sends the message that you don’t trust them to be independent, and don’t think they’re capable of handling their school work on their own. It presumes them to be slackers until they prove themselves otherwise, over and over again. It encourages them to see themselves as doing the work to satisfy others, rather than to make it their own. The many kids who would do the homework on time without this intervention are robbed of the opportunity to prove that and to take pride in it. As I wrote in part 1, I think I would have become a juvenile delinquent if my parents had insisted on policing my school work the way parents are expected to today.
Third, it elevates rule-compliance over substance. Do the homework correctly, turn it in on time—and you’ll still lose points if you haven’t gotten your parent to sign it. There are kids at our junior high who routinely get Fs on that aspect of their homework, and it affects their course grades—never mind how well they know the material. Is the grade supposed to measure what they know and can do, or how obedient they are?
Fourth, it’s presumptuous. It would be one thing if a teacher asked parents if they were interested in signing their kids’ homework all the time. I would still decline the invitation, but at least my kids wouldn’t get a misimpression of how to ask politely for someone’s assistance. Instead, the typical approach is simply to tell the kids they must get the signatures, or to tell the parents they must provide them. (For example, “You will sign the log sheet to show the reading has been completed.”) Isn’t it rude to assume that someone will not only agree with your intervention, but actively participate in it, and that you don’t even need to ask nicely?
Fifth, the practice sends bad—and factually inaccurate—messages about authority. It’s hard to think of a more basic principle of justice than the principle that the government cannot punish you for someone else’s acts. If anyone wants to explain to me how it would be constitutional for a public school to penalize a child for a parent’s refusal to sign homework, I’d like to hear it. Yet, when my wife has been away and I’ve told my kids that I won’t sign the homework, they have always been anxious about getting punished. One thing the school has taught them well: No one should ever disobey the authority figure.
I’ve written notes to each teacher explaining that I won’t sign the homework when my wife is away; fortunately, they’ve been understanding about it. But, needless to say, not every parent who doesn’t get around to signing the homework writes a note explaining why. Lots of kids are getting the impression that the teacher has authority not only over them but over their parents as well, and can punish them for their parents’ conduct if they choose. I sometimes remind my kids that the schools are there to serve the public, not the other way around. I’m afraid they don’t learn that very well in school.
Why has the practice of requiring parent signatures become so common? What does it say about what schools now value? Stay tuned for part 3.