Helicopters, Homework and Happiness

by Scott R. Reisinger
From Worcester Magazine January 3, 2008
Picture this scene. A talented young man is accepted into a prestigious college — a legacy admission, to be sure. His mother decides to move hundreds of miles from her hometown to rent a suite at a hotel near the college, where she stays for the duration of his four-year career there, all for the purpose of being near her son and keeping an eye out to be sure that he is being supported and recognized for the genuine talent that he is. After his graduation at the top of his class, she continues to follow her son's career, sometimes writing letters to his supervisors that both extol her son's virtues and encourage him further in his career path. 

What would most of us call such a mother today? A "helicopter parent."

History called her Mrs. Arthur (Pinky) MacArthur, the mother of General Douglas MacArthur.

Much has been written about the uniqueness of today's helicopter parents, a phenomenon, many believe, of the Baby Boom generation. We are, many charge, too involved in the lives of our children, not willing to allow them to grow and develop into independent people. Over the last few years the media has been replete with stories of today's helicopter: the parent who refuses to leave her college freshman alone and scrupulously questions her daughter's professors about her progress; the father who campaigns for his son's inclusion on his college football team; the mother who contacts potential employers for her soon-to-be graduated son.

Although identified first among parents of college students, the stereotype of the helicopter parent has entered the educational lexicon even in our elementary, middle and high schools. And it has a certain currency, as if it has come to characterize the entire generation of Baby Boomers in dealing with their children.

No doubt the last 30 years have witnessed changes in child-rearing practices and these have had an effect upon children and their schooling. Those of us who came to maturity in the 1970s recall the debates over the "narcissistic personality" that supposedly dominated our time. Many of us accepted the view of the late social critic Christopher Lasch that Americans had become emotionally shallow, unengaged, self- absorbed and undisciplined. We saw a society in which the concept of family was under siege. And we suspected that this crisis in the American spirit had something to do with both parenting and schooling.

We face a similar challenge today among our millennial children, and it is nothing new. Our overall prosperity as a society, the culture of commerce of which we are inevitably a part, the heightened expectations that characterize our time, and the feelings of entitlement that emerge, force educators to reassess our mission. We know, as the psychologist Michael Thompson asserts, that our schools are the two remaining institutions. And where our schools fail, our prisons tragically pick up the pieces.

If our future depends upon the success of our schools, as it surely does, then we must understand that successful schools share so much in common beyond resources. They are places where parents and teachers share ambitions. They are places of respect and goodness, places of community where children are encouraged to live lives of moral leadership. Too, they are places where students see themselves as active learners and teachers of others, and places that connect students to a diverse global community.

And at the root of successful schools we find teachers and families working together in ways that engage each other in a project of shared goals — the intellectual, physical and psychological well-being of children.

After almost 30 years of working with students and their parents, my experience suggests that successful school/parent partnerships are not only possible, but commonly exist in our schools. In the interest of fighting against the stereotype of the helicopter parent, here are a few thoughts about the foundation of those partnerships.

Engaged families and a shared mission

Healthy families have goals for their children — they have a mission. What are your goals? What kind of person do you want your child to be? Make certain that your child's teacher knows what your goals are — this honest conversation is the first step of working in partnership.

And listen carefully. Understand those areas at which your child excels and those areas that are challenges. Try to avoid the "chip off the old block" mentality of believing that your son or daughter is just like you are. It may or may not be so. Understand, too, that the experiences of your own childhood are unique to you, and separated in time, space and place from what your son or daughter is experiencing. Strive to understand your child's unique experience on his or her own terms.

Grounded in the child

All successful schools address  the needs of the children with whom they work. Indeed, at root, this should be the only concern of schools, and we should be impatient with those matters that interfere with addressing the learning needs of children. Schools that are committed to excellence place at their very core their belief in children and their goodness as well as their role as agents of change within a future world that can only be approximated.

Successful schools also work from the idea that all children are unique individuals. Work with the school to help your children discover what she and/or he is passionate about. Be encouraging of new directions and ideas. Most of all, be open to your children's "personhoods" — what makes them who they are.

Respecting our children's freedom

It is our challenge as both parents and educators to build and sustain healthy relationships that work in the interests of our children. But how to do this while avoiding being too scrupulous and overprotective is not always easy. Even the best of us become Pinky MacArthur on occasion.

If we are to encourage the creation of psychologically whole, confident, intelligent, accomplished and compassionate young people, we must start by recognizing their freedom.

This may seem counterintuitive. Doesn't recognizing the freedom of young people mean creating an attitude of "anything goes?" No, instead it means allowing children to make mistakes.

Psychologist Wendy Mogel asserts in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, "Free will is indeed the attribute that will define your child's life. How she makes decisions and chooses between right and wrong will directly influence everything else .... Letting your child learn to exercise free will doesn't mean being permissive. It means allowing her to choose badly and to learn from the choices she makes."

Mogel is right. Who has not learned more from mistakes? Of course, parents and teachers must recognize the freedom of children in ways that are developmentally appropriate — only a fool would accord as much responsibility to a five-year-old child as to a college-bound senior. But the important point is to recognize their responsibility in ways that are appropriate.

Working toward goodness, not happiness alone

Along with this freedom comes our responsibility as teachers and parents to work toward our children's goodness. In working with parents I have often noted the one goal we all seem to have in common: our child's happiness. But if we act in ways to ensure that happiness at all times, we, too, often foster the self-centered, narcissistic, status-conscious, materialistic and psychologically partial people we deplore. Instead, I suggest, focus upon a child's goodness. Concentrating on that goodness is an exercise in parental responsibility. It calls upon the children to be engaged with others to first understand their own responsibility for themselves, then also their responsibility to others. Find opportunities for your child to go beyond his or her own area of comfort, and engage in community service. And model that same service yourself.

Our best schools require community service for all students. In fact, one of the most significant revolutions, though a quiet one, that has taken place in our schools has been the introduction of extensive community service programs that work from the idea of service-learning. In these programs, parents, students and teachers express a shared commitment by working together to meet the needs of the poor, build homes for the homeless, provide food at soup kitchens, tutor children or provide educational enrichment to those who need it. And it has become an expectation of colleges and universities that our students engage in service. Annual surveys of first-year college students have indicated that around 80% of all students engaged in some form of service in the previous year.

Communication is the key

Good communication defines the successful school-family partnership. It may come as a surprise to some, but the vast majority of teachers I have known value their interactions with parents and see them as indispensable to the education of their students. The same holds true for school administrators.

When you have a question, contact the right person at school, and listen to his or her professional judgment. More than likely, that person shares your goals, values and ambition to work in partnership with you. As parents, we all have the right to expect our schools to be responsive to our children's needs. We also have a right to honest communication and feedback.

Thirty years ago, computer technology was in its infancy. Today it often dominates discussions of education and its future. No doubt the use of the World Wide Web, the application of computer technology in the classroom, and the increasing technological skills of students have been a boon to their learning. In more ways than can be counted, technology has been a friend.

Nonetheless, e-mail has too often been a source of frustration to those serious about building parent/school partnerships. While it has allowed for faster and more efficient communication, it has also led to misunderstanding, frustration and anger, particularly in conflicting or stressful situations. Schools around the country have begun to advise parents on the use of e-mail. My experience has indicated that if you have a serious issue to discuss with a teacher or administrator, pick up the phone and arrange a meeting.

Homework: Theirs or mine?

Few issues have been as controversial of late as homework. The followers of Alfie Kohn assert that homework serves as a punishment and is unnecessary. Most educators, myself included, don't agree. Until we overthrow the Skinnerian Behaviorist paradigm altogether, homework is here to stay.

But a healthy attitude toward homework is necessary. Know what your school policy says about homework — how much, when and whose responsibility it surely is — and know when to let go. There is a difference between helping children with their homework and doing it for them. A common teacher complaint around the country is receiving the research paper that he knows was composed by the parent. Some college admissions officers worry about who wrote the college admissions essays.

We have plenty of homework to do as parents, but it's generally not assigned by our children's teachers.

Model the best

Children watch what we do. And the childhood years flow by so fast. True school/family partnerships are formed through the examples that we set. Attending concerts, school events, being there on the sidelines of games to support our children — taking a genuine interest in your child's schooling — speaks volumes to both your children and their teachers.
Finally, keep in touch with the teacher — go to parent conferences, ask informed questions, volunteer in the classroom, get involved in your parent group at school, show your sincere interest — your children will see that education is important to you, and, more important, so are they. 

Scott R. Reisinger has been headmaster of The Bancroft School in Worcester since 1999. As a teacher and administrator, he has worked with students of all ages — from kindergarten through high school seniors — for more than a quarter of a century.