Damned if You Do
posted by Amy

This week's Problem with Parents Today is apparently helicopter parents. But wait! I thought the source of all societal ills was uninvolved parents. Is anyone else confused?

At the magnet school our oldest goes to, parents are required to donate 40 hours/year of service to the school. At the local public school Henry goes to, parent volunteers are expected to raise the money for art and music programs and support the teachers while they work with small groups. As far as I can tell, this is pretty much the norm for public schools around here.

Parental involvement, we're told over and over, is key to a child's success. That's why, I assume, the schools send home instructions for family art projects we're to bring back to school, ask us to record the titles and numbers of pages of all the books we read to our children, and sign off on their homework each night. I'm not crazy about doing any of the above--we have our own ideas about creating art and reading for pleasure, not for rewards, and six years into having a kid in public school, I'm a little sick of signing off on homework--but I figure it doesn't hurt to go along with the small stuff.

I do know that parents can get overinvolved at times. I'd wager that every generation has had its share of parents who care way too much about which first-grader is friends with which, or what kind of shoes so-and-so's wearing. And I know I've fallen victim to wanting to have some control over which teacher my kid gets (although the only time I made a specific request for a teacher, I regretted it immensely). So yeah, I do think middle-class parents, out of love and fear, may want to control our kids' environments more than is perhaps possible or even good.

On the other hand, more and more lately, however, I've seen parents afraid to speak up about legitimate concerns because they think they'll be labeled "helicopter parents" or troublemakers. The mixed messages parents receive are problematic--it feels a little like the all-too-common rapid swing of the K-12 pendulum: from "Parent involvement is good! Good parents are involved in their kids' schools!" to "Parental involvement is bad! Bad parents are involved in their kids' schools!"

Could we reach a happy medium someday? I think parents and teachers agree on two things: we want the best for the kids, and we all want to be treated with respect. There are many issues facing parents and schools today, and none of them can be traced back to a single cause. I'd hate to see thoughtful, kind parent volunteers chased out of the schools because of the fear of being called "helicopter parents." This kind of reminds me of the so-called mommy wars; the worry is that perhaps if parents and teachers are busy fighting with each other, we'll forget to notice the structural issues underneath these surface problems.