We parents can never really win, can we? Everyone, including people who don't have kids, is better at it than we are. A new mother gets her first lesson in this when she takes her infant out for a walk in the stroller (facing toward Mommy, of course, because this piece of common sense has been confirmed by research to be psychologically healthier), is told by one well-meaning stranger that her little one is fussing because he is too bundled, and by the next well-meaning stranger that he is not bundled enough.
These days we read a great deal about so-called helicopter parents (as opposed to the aforementioned helicopter strangers), who involve themselves in every little detail of their child's existence, the better to shield them not only from harm but also from their own mistakes. The expression "helicopter parent" is, if Wikipedia is to be believed, a twenty-first century term.
But in today's climate, parents are often given no choice but to hover– indeed, it is expected of them. The example that comes readily to mind is the way my children's homework is managed. Having sent ten kids off to elementary school over the last 16 years, I've seen a real shift in the way students are taught to keep track of their homework and assignments. The responsibility for this task has shifted from them to their parents– a big change from how it was done under ten years ago.
Back in the twentieth century, when my oldest were just beginning to get homework (around second grade), they were given one half of a small soft-covered notebook that had been cut in two by the teacher. It was their job to do their homework and to keep their little homework book up to date. If they failed to do homework for two or three days in a row, they had to suffer the consequence of having their homework book signed each day of the next week by one of their parents.
In other words, parental signatures were for those students who hadn't yet learned to organize themselves. This strategy served the purpose of keeping most of the kids on track, and had a built-in mechanism for maintaining a closer watch on the few students who required one. It served my oldest two children well; they've maintained good organizational skills into university.
Now, the kids get a school-issued coil-bound planner (yes, the influence of Steven Covey has been that far-reaching), and it is school policy that it be signed each day by a parent. I wonder if the beginning of widespread school agenda use coincides with the appearance of the "helicopter parent". In my own experience, they became very widely used around the year 2000.
They certainly don't help parents who are doing their best not to hover. In the school my children attend they must be signed each day, whether there is anything written for that day or not– because I have nothing better to do than to sign blank agenda pages, and my kids need to be held accountable for making sure Mommy and Daddy follow the agenda routine, it seems–like helicopter children.
And they are indeed held accountable for the lack of a parental signature. Some teachers respond to this event by putting the offending child's name on the board, or giving them a "homework incomplete" for missing two or three signatures in a row, even though all their actual homework was done.
The effect of this routine on my elementary school-aged children's attitude towards keeping track of their own homework has been interesting. It has become a bit of an ongoing struggle to shift the balance of responsibility back on to them. So with some of our younger children I have the occasional conversation that goes like this:
Mom: "What do you mean you haven't started the project that is due tomorrow?"
Child (striking an accusatory note): "Well it was in my agenda…."
At which point they are told that it's only my job to sign the agenda because the teacher wants me to, and it is not my job to hover over their project. I finish the lecture by asking them if they want me to go to their office every day when they are adults so that I can sign their daytimer. Then they have to sit at the dining room table and work for several hours straight to meet their deadline with me watching to make sure they don't shirk.
The whole scenario typically results in more independence forthwith, though there are probably those who would accuse me of hovering as I insist a grade four student complete an assigned task with diligence, even if they've left it to the last minute.
Helicopter parents, like over- and under-bundled babies, are probably in the eye of the beholder. But surely the decision to bundle or not, and to hover or not, is best left to Mom and Dad.
Michelle Martin writes from Hamilton, Toronto.