Behaviour - Sort out a flight plan for `helicopter' parents

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Overengaged mothers and fathers can be infuriating, but if you channel their enthusiasm it can help children's learning soar

This week, my son's school has invited me to attend a sharing assembly, a school trip and a weekly reading session. On Wednesday, I sent him to school wearing purple clothes - just days after dressing him up for World Book Day. At home, we have been reading about castles and knights to tie in with his latest class topic, and I am on standby to fashion a medieval costume in the coming weeks. In short, doing all the things the school wants me to do keeps me pretty busy.

But is this engagement a slippery slope? Clinical psychologist Dr Claire Halsey says this increased demand for parental involvement may be to blame for the recent rise in "helicopter parenting", which is when parents involve themselves in their child's education to an excessive degree. Although Halsey notes that ultimately "heliparenting" stems from a good place - it is born out of a parent's concern for their child - interference can hamper learning.

Out-of-control expectations and resentment from staff are just the start of the potential problems, according to teachers I have spoken to. Judy Reith, parenting coach and author of 7 Secrets of Raising Girls Every Parent Must Know, says that heliparenting suffocates a child's sense of self-worth. As a result, they don't learn how to deal with criticism or how to learn from their mistakes.

Propellers engaged

On my own classroom visits, I am beginning to suspect a few fellow parents of heliparenting. I see them having chats with the teacher about reading levels and educational apps and I wonder where that invisible line between "engaged" and "interfering" falls. Am I naive in thinking that I should just let the teacher get on with it - or should I be joining the queue and requesting extra homework for my son?

I asked teachers to share their experiences of helicopter parenting and was shocked to discover how far some parents go. For example, a senior manager in a leading boarding school told me about a parent who lives abroad who recently flew into the country (literal helicopter parenting) to make the case for his child being promoted to the top maths set.

A teacher at another private secondary told me about a parent who complained that she relied too heavily on peer assessment. The teacher's marking was reviewed and ultimately commended. She told me that teachers at her school have become so accustomed to this kind of parental backlash that they steer clear of the lowest grades in half-termly reviews to avoid disputes.

Things have got so out of hand that Tony Little, headmaster at Eton College, decided to tackle the matter publicly. Speaking at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March, Little said that although the "vast majority" of parents bought into the philosophy promoted by his school, some mothers and fathers needed closer management. "In the main most parents are fine," he explained. "But it is still the case that a small minority of parents at my school - and at different types of schools - have a very specific agenda. [They are] living the life for their children."

Crowded airspace

You may suspect that helicopter parenting is worse in a private setting, where parents feel that paying for education gives them more of a right to complain, but it appears to be a mainstay in state education, too.

A primary teacher told me that the parent of one boy had come to him and said: "This maths homework is really too easy." The student looked embarrassed: the truth was that he had had to sit down with the teacher to go through some of the questions he was finding particularly tricky.

Another teacher was told by a parent that their method of teaching multiplication "was nonsense"; the parent said they had taught their child "the proper way".

It gets more ridiculous. One mother telephoned to complain about the way her child's teacher wrote the letter "R", suggesting that her child would fail their exams if they adopted the same handwriting. As the teacher noted, the resulting discussions were a strain not only on the member of staff but also the child.

Indeed, being the offspring of a heliparent is an emotional affair. A praise-filled parents' evening can suddenly feel like a telling off, as points for improvement are met with tutting and scowls. Some argue that heliparents undermine all the hard work teachers do to shield primary students from unacceptable pressure and the stress of "failing".

And yet there is a positive side to helicopter parenting. If effectively managed, the parent can be an aid rather than a barrier to a child's education. One teacher told me about a fantastic parent who takes home practice papers and goes through them with her child, question by question, like a teaching assistant would in the classroom. Ultimately, the teachers I spoke to all believe that helicopter parents want the best for their children. And they would all rather deal with helicopter parents than absent ones.

Automatic pilot

But what if the expectation is that parents are by and large absent? In the French system, this is more or less the case. You deliver your children on time and with their homework complete, then collect them at the end of the day. Parents tend to have reverence for the teacher, who is always "Monsieur" or "Madame", and there is no interfering.

One French parent I spoke to told me there was little point in helicoptering. The teacher works through a very rigid checklist - if the child doesn't check off the points, they are held back a year. The children either do it, or they do it again the next year. So helicopter parenting, she said, just doesn't happen.

For parents who work, like me, this situation is appealing. Certainly the demands placed on parents in the UK are unfair to working parents who simply can't attend everything, and unfair to parents who want to work but feel they are being conscripted out of the office and into the classroom.

Ultimately, if we parents can't get out of the teacher's way and begin to pursue our own personal and professional interests, how will our children learn autonomy and resilience?

Ensuring a safe landing

I like to think there can be a balance between the two extremes - that we can be present in our children's education but not ever-present. Sometimes that will require teachers to encourage absent parents to be more active, but sometimes it will involve talking heliparents down.

The latter isn't easy, but here are five top tips from teachers to encourage a soft landing:

  • Use good, assertive communication skills. Being sure of your approaches and communicating these clearly will come across well. If you don't appear confident, it's hard for others to have confidence in you.
  • Let parents know you are listening - reply to emails and phone calls, even if it's just to say you'll respond more fully when you can. Block out time in your diary to get this done.
  • Work with management to produce a message about how parents can best work with the school. Include everything from contact information to events, and outline the benefits that parents can bring to the institution.
  • Invite feedback from parents at set times. If there is a designated time and place for this to happen, even if it's part of another event, you can refer parents to that rather than needing to have rushed conversations at the beginning or end of the day.
  • Establish clear boundaries about when teachers are available. Parents won't know when they can contact you unless you make it clear. Put this information on your email signature.
    • Fiona Hughes is a freelance writer based in Devon

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