This is a reprint used with permission by the author.
One of the most intriguing new phenomena that administrators like me have to deal with is what we affectionately refer to as the “helicopter parent.” By this expression we describe those mothers and fathers who intervene in the academic career of their adult children as if the students were still in elementary school.
Granted, sometimes a parental intervention may be justified. For example, if the student has been the victim of inappropriate behavior that may affect them emotionally, it’s not unnatural for a parent to want direct involvement with the school. I am a father of three girls, and I can easily understand how and why I might become entangled in an issue that affects their lives.
But what we see far too often are parents who complain about grades, interaction with teachers or even interaction with other students. More to the point, in many cases, the students themselves don’t seem to be particularly bothered, while their parents engage with the energy of a crusader. When I was in Virginia, serving as dean at George Mason University, I even received a form letter that the governor’s office used when a parent was complaining directly to the governor. I am surprised I never got a letter from the White House!
This is, for sure, a rather new phenomenon, and certainly did not happen a generation ago. I still remember when I was in sixth grade in Italy, and (like many of you, I’m sure) I had a horribly annoying math teacher (her name was Signora Normando). One day I went home and told my mom that my teacher did not like me. Within a fraction of a second my mom had already firmly slapped the back of my head (typical Italian mother!), and then proceeded to yell at me, and to tell me in no uncertain terms that it was my responsibility to make sure that my teacher would like me.
That was the end of the discussion and certainly the last time I ever complained about a teacher or anything else. The end of the story is amusing: Signora Normando became pregnant, and thanks to the very generous Italian pregnancy rules, she had to stay home. We were assigned a different teacher, and I was able to pass the class. I ended up becoming a professional mathematician (and sent Signora Normando my first research article!).
I have tried to understand why parents cannot be more like my mom and teach their children to deal with their own problems. Now that I have small kids in school (Athena is 7 and Arianna 10), I realize that parents behave like helicopters because they are being trained to be helicopters.
Schools assign our kids a collection of inane (and insane) homework, which requires our direct involvement. Athena had to build a cardboard car, which of course required an entire afternoon of very hard work (by my son, I am pleased to say). I am not sure what she was supposed to learn from that. Arianna was assigned the well-known California mission project, which we allowed her to do on her own. When she went to school with a project worthy of a 9-year-old, she was told that her project was not good enough, and so I had to do it myself, finally receiving at least a B (I think I deserved an A, but the teacher may have punished us for being late).
A friend of mine and of my wife, Lisa, told us amusing stories of the dreaded “Flat Stanley” project, which requires kids to take a trip with this silly cardboard figure and take pictures in a variety of locations. Our friends forgot to bring Flat Stanley to London during their last trip, and so decided to go to Vegas and take pictures of Flat Stanley in front of a fake Eiffel Tower and a fake Bellagio lake to complete the project! I did not have the heart to ask them about the grade (and I did not want to share the humiliation of my B), but I will anonymously report their fraud to the teacher.
The “helicopterization” of parents, however, does not end with homework and projects. We seem to be constantly invited to some kind of event at school. Back-to-school nights (as if we were not already depressed enough by having to send our kids back to school), open houses (please … spare our souls), concerts, plays, jog-a-thon, international/global day, 100-mile club assembly, lunch with dad (are you kidding me? We have dinner together every night – why do I have to drive back from work to sit on a bench and eat a miserly lunch?), family picnics, family fun nights, end-of-the-year showcase of projects, etc.
So, now I get it. The parents of our students are helicopters, but it truly is not their fault. They/we have been slowly indoctrinated to be intimately connected with the life of their/our children, and to become their partners in their education experience.
Now I can look forward to the day when my kids will be in college, and I will go to the dean, the chancellor, the president, the governor of California, to complain about the unfairness of the grades they received in their math class – whose teacher, I suspect, really simply does not like my children.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]