Thursday, September 16, 2010

Helicopter parents and hothouse flowers

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?


FedUpMom said...

Hi Chris -- can you cross-post this at the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools? I'll post a response. Thanks! -- FedUpMom.

Chris said...

Sure. Here's the link.