8 steps that helped me stop hovering and broke my helicopter parenting habit (and why this is really important).
Alexa parenting and why it's bad for kids.
Over the decades as a teacher/administrator I have seen a number of parenting changes. Some are good, some are bad, and some are not really either good or bad--they are just different.
One of the changes I think is definitely on the negative side is the increasing number of parents who are increasingly quick to try to fix their child's problems. This is not merely my own opinion; there has been a great deal of discussion about this and a number of terms for this over the years--helicopter parents (because they hover), snowplow or lawnmower parents (because they clear all the obstacles out of their child's way) and so on.
A while back, I coined my own term to describe what I see and hear about from colleagues and friends around the country. Alexa parents are parents who constantly pass along requests, suggestions, and even orders to schools and teachers as if they are speaking to their Alexa or Siri apps. I won't go into it today, but you can read more about it here.
One specific form of Alexa parenting I find particularly damaging happens when a child experiences some discomfort, disappointment, or distress, and the parent responds by immediately emailing or calling the school or teacher and ask/tell them to fix it.
Let me pause here. I always worry when writing something like this, because it carries the risk that it will come off as a cranky teacher just being cantankerous. The reality is very different. This is not about making things easier for school personnel; it is about helping a child become a competent, confident, autonomous adult.
Alexa parenting and reflexive interventions in a child's problems are damaging for at least two reasons. First of all, they rob the child of critical chances to develop problem-solving skills, emotional resilience, communication skills, self-confidence, competence, and parent-child bonding. Secondly, I am convinced that the more a child must depend on 3rd and 4th party solutions, the less likely those solutions are to be effective and long-lasting.
One way to think of this is to conceptualize problems, challenges, disappointments and the like as developmentally appropriate opportunities or exercises for your child to gain the strength and practice the skills they will need to flourish in the next stage of life.
Consider a baby. First they reach and stretch. Then they move like an inchworm. Then they army crawl. Then they crawl. Then they probably pull themselves up using a chair. Then they take a step. Then two. They fall a lot. Then they take several steps. They fall more. Eventually they toddle, then run. Each cumulative phase builds the strength and coordination needed for the next phase. A baby who has to stretch for a desired toy may be frustrated in the short term, but if loving parents always put every toy in reach, they are slowing that baby's progress. Likewise, parents who respond to every non-verbal communication will probably increase the time it takes for a baby to learn to talk.
This is obvious and widely understood--but it can be hard to always remember in the moment. Our child's emotional. social, and cognitive development is similar, though less obvious. Learning to work through problems with peers, experiencing disappointment, and fully experiencing the ups and downs of Kindergarten prepare children for 1st grade.
Adolescence is a critical time for learning important life lessons and developing a variety of skills and competencies. At this age, children can start to connect cause and effect, actions and consequences (good or bad). They start to learn about personal responsibility. They learn that they can almost always do more than they think is possible. They can start developing confidence not based on praise, but on achievement and self-regulation. Often this will happen as much through their failures as much as their successes. They will start to learn from mistakes and begin to gain the freedom and security that comes from the ability to solve one's problems. They learn either courage and confidence or helplessness, and develop independence or the habit of looking to others to fix things for them.
With the best of intentions, when we are Alexa parents, we seriously hobble and limit our children's futures, just as surely as a parent who never forces their child to walk on their own, or who picks them up after every single fall.
We often think we will eventually let our child stand on their own, but if we are unable to keep from intervening when they are young and the stakes are low, it is very difficult to suddenly start letting them manage their lives when the stakes are higher. So one question that might be useful when we are tempted to over-parent is this: If I am not going to let my child manage their life now, then when?
Children do not wake up one day, strong and mature and able to solve their own problems. Rather, they develop these skills and grow in their confidence, competence, and resourcefulness. But they also need to develop the mindset that they can and should solve their own problems. Independence and helplessness are habits of mind that are learned, acquired, and practiced. They aren't like teeth or growing a few inches because they don't simply emerge one day at a certain time of life.
Our child's sincere, unique distress doesn't justify Alexa parenting, but there are some exceptions.
I think parents probably know this. But it's hard to hold that line when it is our child who is upset. That's one of the reasons for the phenomenon I mentioned in last week's newsletter, where we often get a communication saying, "I don't want to be a helicopter parent, but...." Or, "I know I should let her work out her own problems, but...."
Often these requests fall under a few general headings:
The child is upset because of something a peer did.
The child is upset because of something a teacher did.
The child is upset because of a consequence.
The child is upset because of an outcome different than what they had worked or hoped for.
Every student who is hurt or upset or disappointed has their own unique story, and the pain, distress, disappointment, can be very real. But the fact that they feel something deeply is not grounds to rob the child of the chance to learn from the situation. And, the fact that the circumstance is unique does not mean that it requires immediate intervention. Too often, parents see a unique circumstance or genuine sadness/frustration/difficulty as an exception to the rule that their child will need to learn to solve their problems, with appropriate assistance.
As a result of the problem, and often because they are upset by their child's distress, parents fire off an email or phone call trying to solve the problem. They might request the school or teacher transfer someone out of a particular class, change a grade, separate two children, change a policy, suspend a consequence, address some social dynamic, give some degree of very specific and personalized attention, or any number of other things. Sometimes the requests are moderate, other times they are unreasonable, but even moderate requests can be damaging to the long-term happiness of the child if they interfere with the child's problem-solving ability.
Now, before I go any further, let me stipulate that there are times when school personnel need to be brought into a problem, and all of the interventions I mentioned above may sometimes be prudent, appropriate, and necessary.
For example, if your child is being truly bullied that almost certainly requires adult intervention, but the definition of bullying includes several things: repetition, the intent to harm, and a power imbalance that makes it difficult for the recipient to defend themself. A friend being mean or a peer being unkind is not bullying, and learning how to manage these situations is a critical part of becoming a strong, self-actualizing, self-confident adult.
If a child is being truly mistreated by a teacher in some way, that situation likely exceeds your child's ability because of the power differential. Again, though, make sure you have a clear idea of what is happening. Start with questions before you start making accusations.
If your child knows of a peer who is expressing ideas of self-harm, or is doing dangerous things, or who is harming others, that is well beyond the ability of a child or even older teen to navigate.
Those are just three examples--there are surely other exceptions.
However, I will suggest that truly justified exceptions, times when you should fire email or call and ask the school to do something will be the exception, not the rule. If this is your first response to most problems, for the sake of your child, you should probably reflect carefully.
Additionally, contacting the school should generally be the second or even third step in a solution, something that comes after other options have been exhausted, not the first step. Contacting the school should certainly not be the almost-instinctive response it has become.
All that said, I have benefitted in my own parenting by seeking guidance and advice from older, more experienced sources. Some of the best advice I've received came from older teachers. Teachers see a huge cross-section and sample of kids in specific age ranges. They have a great sense of what is normal and expected, and what may require more specialized help. They have seen a lot of parents and have a sense of what parenting approaches work well and what isn't so good. If you have a seasoned teacher, someone you trust, then asking for advice, perspective, or guidance is something I'd encourage. That is different than asking someone to fix your problem. Just make sure you are open to their candid reply. Some of the most helpful, beneficial bits of advice I have received were not always what I wanted to hear.
How I learned to manage my very strong tendencies to intervene.
Okay, now I am going to be honest. While I believe very strongly in what I am saying here, and while I have seen these things proven time and time again from long observation, I really, really struggled with this in my own parenting.
I wanted to fix my kid's problems and solve things for them. I hated watching them struggle. This was all the more pronounced since three of my children went to the school where I work. From Kindergarten through 8th grade, I had front row seats to their daily ups and downs, so I had motive AND opportunity!
It was really, really challenging for me not to intervene, and for some of those years, I was directly in charge of discipline and similar things in our school. Being a snowplow parent was already a huge temptation for me, and having that level of proximity, being closely associated with their teachers and administrators made this even more tempting for me to not be an Alexa parent.
I finally had to set some clear parameters and guidelines for myself. I realized that if I solved their problems, I could harm them. I also realized that there's no limiting principle. Once you start, it is hard to stop. It's incredibly easy to just keep intervening.
To help myself manage this, I created a sort of flow chart for myself--a series of questions I would ask myself.
When I was tempted to intervene, here's what I did:
To start, I repeated as a mantra that my child's distress and discomfort did not necessarily mean that someone else needed to take action. I tried to tell myself this before there was a crisis that tempted me to respond. I tried to take my child's feelings seriously, but I realized that sometimes the action item that is called for is not an email to someone else, but parental coaching to help them learn perspective and to be a little more resilient.
Here's the sequence I have developed for myself:
1. Pause. Is there truly a need for immediate action--meaning is your child in danger and any delay will cause serious, lasting harm? Will any damage be done by taking some time to think and reflect?
a. Am I equating serious, lasting harm with things that are merely unpleasant, uncomfortable, undesirable, unideal, or even unfair?
2. Is there anything about the situation that might benefit my child in the long run, including learning about grit, agency, resilience, problem-solving, empathy, and responsibility?
3. Is this truly and totally beyond my child's ability to address?
a. Can I provide coaching and help with brainstorming and encouragement, as opposed to taking the lead in addressing the problem?
4. Am I sure I fully understand the situation and all perspectives?
Before you complain, start with some questions. Make sure you understand the situation fully. Your child may be a wonderful child, but they will only tell you their side of things, and even if they are trying to be honest, chances are they may miss some nuance that is important. This can save a lot of embarrassment later on, and keep your credibility intact.
5. Does communicating with the school really solve the problem, or does it simply transfer the burden from me/my child to someone who is even less close to the problem?
For example, if the school is going to have to end up calling another parent or talking to another student, it may be scary, uncomfortable, or messy to do it myself, but it is likely that calling that parent myself may yield better results? If not, you can always call the school.
6. If the school really does need to act, am I tying their hands?
One of the most frustrating things is when a family calls and asks the school to intervene in a problem that will obviously require contacting another student or family, but the person making the complaint says, "Please don't mention our name or say we told you." It is very difficult to intervene effectively in such cases. There are times when it may be necessary to keep something anonymous, but it is hard to respond in an effective way when everything has to be hypothetical.
7. Is the person I am communicating with the right person to solve the problem? Or am I merely trying to get someone to have conversations I'd rather avoid?
If you have a problem with a teacher, and your child has not been able to get help, then start with the teacher yourself. Don't jump to the principal--who will then have to bring the teacher into the conversation.
8. Will a top-down solution fix the problem, or just smooth it over for now, while adults are around to make it work? Will it empower my child to solve the problem permanently?
Two final words of advice to optimize your chances of success when you do need to intervene.
In all this, here are two things to remember. First, you can always escalate. You can intervene if your child's efforts don't work. You can be more firm. You can go up the chain of command. But if you start with your biggest artillery it is really, really hard to ratchet back down. Chances are, at the end of the day, your child will still go to school in the same place, possibly be in the same class, so it's wise to try to avoid alienating people unnecessarily. Be especially careful about starting a social media campaign or getting a sort of committee to back you up.
Second, on that note, there are people who complain so often that they have very little credibility. Teachers and administrators deal with an incredible number of minor, trivial, and unreasonable complaints. Some people have lost credibility, either because their requests are frequent and unreasonable, their tone is inappropriate, or both. Be careful that you don't ally yourself with unreasonable people--they can hurt your cause.
For this reason, I encourage people to deal with concerns privately. Don't start a social media campaign or committee unless you haven't been able to resolve things yourself. Complaints quickly bring diminishing returns, so keep your powder dry.
In every organization, there are other people whose complaints are taken extremely seriously. These people have earned trust by being supportive, reasonable, positive, and engaged. They read the handbooks, rules, emails, and don't ask for exceptions. They do what they are asked to do, express appreciation for people's efforts, and contribute when and how they can. Mostly, they don't complain about small things. Their complaints are rare, so when they do complain, teachers/administrators take it very seriously and respond quickly and with the presumption of good faith.
I hope that is helpful! I want to ask people's thoughts about two possible new approaches for this newsletter--as well as the book I have been outlining and planning. But I will wait for another time since this has already gone on for a bit.
Happy parenting! You've got this.
Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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