There are, it seems, an astounding number of ways to be a well-intentioned but bad parent.
Just take a look at the names tossed around by parenting magazines and teachers’ forums: Special Snowflake Parent, Ghost Parent, Drama Queen/King, Tiger Mom and — perhaps the most dreaded — Hovering Parent and Helicopter Parent.
In fact, glance through any parenting website, and you’ll find article after article about how not to hover. We're warned that solving children’s problems for them can plunge them into anxiety and resentment, clinical depression and possibly binge drinking.
The conscientious parents I know fret about this: Are they helicoptering when they intervene? Is it OK to help with homework/step in at the playground/ask a child’s teacher for something different/object to a grade or assignment/moderate disagreements with peers?
Parenting blogs, educational experts, and psychology websites usually suggest that the answers to most of these questions should be a resounding no. Let your child fight his own battles, negotiate his own solutions, and find his own way. This is good training — essential practice for adulthood. After all, kids will grow up to find themselves working with bullies, dealing with unsympathetic bosses, and handling their own personal dilemmas. If you jump in to solve your child’s problems, how will she learn to manage on her own?
Of course, you shouldn’t cushion your seven-year-old from all playground risks, immediately leap in to arbitrate when your ten-year-old has a fight with her best friend, demand that your 14-year-old get a better grade even though he didn’t do his homework, or accompany your high school junior to his university interviews and then answer all the questions for him. (And also, you shouldn’t be writing college application essays. Under any condition. Stop that now and go join a book club.)
But I’d like to suggest that helicoptering is a good and necessary thing in one particular setting: when a child is sitting in a room with a group of others born within twelve months; studying the traditional subjects of language arts, maths, social sciences, natural sciences and foreign languages; moving through these subjects in 50- or 75-minute blocks, four or five times a week; doing this from September to June, unless it snows; listening to someone at the front of the room, and then going home to complete a series of randomly assigned tasks.
When, in short, a child is in school.
Our K-12 system is almost entirely unnatural. It is the modern product of market forces.
Its grades and subjects have no essential connection to knowledge. It prioritizes a single way of understanding over all others.
And it’s not optional. Children cannot escape it. If they learn best by moving or doing, instead of listening and reading, too bad. If they learn naturally in short concentrated bursts or long single-minded study, that’s a pity. If they mature unevenly (as most kids do) and can do math much better than literature (or vice versa), they’re going to be either bored, or frustrated. If their hearing is more acute than that of their peers, and background noise drives them nuts, they’ll have to deal.
This is not analogous to adult life. In adult life, if you can’t stand your job conditions, you look for another job. There’s no law that makes it illegal for you to move out of an arbitrarily constructed, inflexible, complex system that’s causing you pain.
But that’s exactly how the truancy laws in all 50 U.S. states work.
And in adult life, you’re capable of identifying what’s driving you crazy about your job. Children aren’t. They’re put into this system before they have self-awareness, a sense of their own gifts and talents, or any comprehension of what learning methods suit them best. They cannot tell you why they aren’t thriving, because they simply don’t know. And our K-12 system conveys to them, very clearly: If you can’t do the work, it’s your fault.
If your child consistently comes home from school weeping, apathetic, angry, blank-faced or complaining; if you hear the words “I’m just stupid” or “I’m not as smart as the others” or “I can’t learn this”; if he has stomach aches and headaches every morning; if she creates elaborate fantastical reasons why she can’t go to school — that child is suffering from the system that was created without her needs in mind. She has no way to escape. He has no exit ramp.
Helicopter your way right in.
Visit the classroom. Watch quietly to see what’s going on. Observe without protesting. (And if the teacher resists your requests to visit, I’d go on high alert: that’s a sign of an unhealthy learning environment.)
Do your research. Investigate learning methods, learning differences, learning disabilities.
And then ask for change.
Don’t be afraid to intervene. You’re a parent. It’s your duty to be a true guardian — protecting your child from those parts of an artificial system that may discourage, paralyze, or traumatize.