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Helicopter Parents

I do not consider myself a helicopter parent but I admit on occasion I am guilty sometimes of hovering over my children, hoping to protect them from danger or negative consequences. Sometimes we may think we are doing what is best for children at the moment. Part of our child’s healthy development includes them taking on more responsibility as they get older. It is our job as parents to let them fail sometimes or face the consequences of their action (or inaction), no matter how hard that seems. Knowing when to do this and how much to do is not so clear. Don Cowart, principal of Hope Highlands Elementary School, wrote this thought-provoking piece about helicopter parents on his Education For All Blog. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

http://www.ape2zebra.ca/images/thumbs/plan/helicopter_450.jpgHelicopter Parents hover around their children and swoop in the moment their children need any help or experience any discomfort. It is easy to become a helicopter parent because you spend the first few years of your child’s life just trying to keep them alive. But, when do parents have to begin to let go? When do they pull back and let their children struggle? I am not sure. As a family we have been struggling with this concept for a few years and my oldest is only 10. It seems that at some point parents go from modeling and teaching good decision-making and problem solving, to just making all the decisions and solving all the problems for their children. All the time! Some, including me, believe that this makes children weak as they get older. Children become ham-stringed with the inability to handle any discomfort and they do not know how to process failure. For example, we have taught my daughter how to prepare for a spelling test for the last few years. We help her study, but this year she has to initiate the process. She has to do the work without reminders. She has experienced success and she has experienced failure. Most of the failure has been a result of poor preparation or disorganization. When she failed her first test we were all upset and disappointed. The point is that she has learned, the hard way, that she needs to be responsible for her own work if she wants to be successful. Don’t think for one minute that my wife and I didn’t feel bad when we saw how upset she was with her poor grade. Don’t think think that we didn’t consider taking over the spelling process again, like when she was in third grade, because the thought definitely ran through our heads. The truth is, spelling is an easy thing to step back from. Other problems are not so easy.

Some principals have instituted “no rescue” policies at their elementary schools. This came as a result of parents dropping off lunches, homework, clothing and even jewelry forgotten at home. This is not a huge problem at my school, but you would laugh at how many parents I have standing in my foyer with violins on any given Friday, or how many show up to drop off fifty cents for school store. Some parents are not satisfied with just leaving the item in the office. Some insist that they hand the item to their child, which requires pulling them out of class. I just experienced a parent who insisted on dropping off a water bottle about an hour before dismissal. To me it seemed unnecessary. At some schools they struggle with parents who insist on actually delivering the item to their child when they are in class. This is so disruptive.

My favorite is the parent who showed up at a school seconds before lunch to drop off a plastic bag filled with ketchup packets for her son to put on his hamburger. I explained that we had ketchup and it was not necessary to drop off her own ketchup packets. She was very angry when I would not let her bring them to her fourth-grade son, who was already in the cafeteria. The “no rescue” policy puts a stop to this problem. Parents are not allowed to swoop in on a moment’s notice with homework or ketchup packets. This is a difficult line to draw in the sand. As a school principal you work very hard to develop positive relationships with parents. The reality is, how are children going to learn to be responsible if they never experience any discomfort or consequences?

Clearly, times have changed since I was a kid in elementary school and we need to keep our children safe. We need to protect them from unsafe situations. For example, I walked home from school if I missed the bus, but I would never do that with my kids. If they are being bullied, it is important to help them solve the problem. Being victimized by someone is unsafe emotionally and physically, but as they get older, parents and educators have to begin to turn some responsibility to the children. Let them fail. Let them learn. Some of the best learning comes from failure.

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  • Finding this discussion of helicopter parenting, I thought I’d share with you a song I just wrote and recorded about this topic.

    I’m participating in SpinTunes, a new challenge-based songwriting contest. The songs for Round 1 have been completed and were just put online a few hours ago. The Round 1 challenge was to write a song from the point of view of a superhero or supervillain, and I’m really pleased with how my entry, “Step Back Swooperman,” turned out.

    As you’ll see, it’s basically a critique of helicopter parenting (and, by extension, the superhero myth in general). I believe pretty strongly in progressive parenting and often try to incorporate it into my songwriting, as I did with The Offhand Band’s first album, “Everyone’s Invited” — http://theoffhandband.com/2008/11/everyones-invited/ — Critiquing parents who swoop in far too much seemed an ideal topic for me to explore for this round of the SpinTunes contest.

    You can listen to and download “Step Back Swooperman” for free at http://theoffhandband.com/2010/06/step-back-swooperman/ where you can also read along with the lyrics and find out about how I wrote the song.

    I’m trying to get word out about the song especially in the next few days, because although contest results will be determined by a panel of judges, ties will be broken via the Popular Vote poll that will be up for the next few days in the right sidebar at SpinTunes — http://spintunes.blogspot.com/ — A strong showing for this song would seem a great way to help raise awareness about progressive parenting ideas. Anyone interested can simply vote for The Offhand Band – Step Back Swooperman in the poll.

    Keep up the good and important work.

  • I appreciate this article. While I’m still in the early years where helicoptering is somewhat necessary (my girls are 2.5 yrs and 7.5 months) I spend a lot of time thinking about my changing role as a parent. I am the product of “no rescue” parents and I think it paid off because I learned how to fend for myself. It instilled in me great confidence and a sense of self-reliance I can always count on. I try to remind myself that my goal is to raise independent and self-sufficient human beings and helicoptering doesn’t really help with that mission. Great topic, thanks for sharing!

  • I am more aware of when I go in for a rescue now, checking my level of helpfulness or interference. Trusting our children to make good choices is hard but the payoff is worth it. In response to the drop off parent vs letting kids take the bus I defend my choice for drop off. I do not walk my kids into school but merely drop them off. I do find the ride to and from school one of the best places for conversation about their day. They are focused and not distracted by all they need to do once they are home. Staying in tune with what is happening at school and providing them an opportunity to share their joys and sorrows of the day is a great learning time as well.

  • I do believe that most parents, including me, have landed our rescue helicopters at school on one or more occasions. I think there are levels of helicopter parents; low rescue, medium rescue and high rescue. Thanks to Mr. Cowart’s insightful article, I am going to attempt to go from medium(ish) to low. Just last night, my 5th grader left one of his homework assignments in school. My gut reaction was to jump in the car, drive to school up the street, and let him go to his classroom to get his homework but…I stopped myself. He will have to face the consequences of not having brought his homework home and will hopefully learn from it.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with Prinicpal Cowart. At our elem. school (Barr Public Schools) I would love to see the endless line of parents in cars dropping off children before school (fewer pick up for some reason) stop, point blank. We have excellent bus service except for those of us who live “too close” to school and hence walk or cycle or drive. I am convinced that the dropper-off’rs do so just so their child doesn’t have to be on time for a bus, doesn’t have to get damp or chilly waiting for a bus, or just because they themselves can’t be on time for the bus! The amount of gas used by all those SUVs idling in the drop off line (let alone emissions released) makes me crazy – global warming right smack in our neighborhood! And if the drop off parents don’t think their child will enter the school front door successfully without them driving them within 15 feet of it…how will these children ever find their own way anywhere? Usw the bus! Wave goodbye! They will be okay!