As a teacher, I am concerned with what I perceive to be growing trend: parents communicating with teachers and schools as if they were interacting with a digital personal assistant, such as Siri or Alexa. I have come to call this Alexa parenting. At its most basic level it consists of a parent saying, “Teacher, do this for my child” or “School do that" as if schools and personnel were interchangeable with Alexa.
It isn’t usually phrased quite that simplistically of course, and it can be very polite and sincere. Requests range from, “Tell my daughter to remember her trumpet” to “My child is struggling in math, please help him,” to “That kid did something really mean on Snapchat” to "Have you considered making sure the kids know that vaping is dangerous?” to “What are you doing to help address anxiety?” to "The other parents need to do more parenting." One could insert any number of other serious academic, behavioral, social challenges, from anxiety to suicide to consent to racism to forms of privilege to screen time to environmental problems--on and on.
Sometimes, Alexa parents are simply helicopter or snowplow parents who are too busy to personally hover or plow. Instead, they send out their instructions to schools, as if ordering groceries or customizing playlists for each room in their house. But Alexa parenting is not always trivial or over-the-top. Alexa parents can be very sincere people, worried about a child’s academic or social challenges. They might also be thoughtful people genuinely concerned about serious, legitimate cultural or societal problems.
The mark of Alexa parenting is not the relative substance or seriousness of the request, nor is it the tone used to convey the request. Rather, it is the premise that the school--not the family--has either the responsibility, tools, and resources to attend to something. Thus Alexa parenting assumes that the school can and should be doing something about a problem.
Before I go any further, let me give a few disclaimers. I am not saying that any parental request or communication is somehow wrong or inappropriate. School-family partnerships are critical. Parents ought to be able to work closely with schools and teachers, and educators ought to be as responsive as possible. I’ll address this in a moment.
I also want to make it clear that I don’t mean to sound snarky or glib. I’m not trying to criticize or unload on parents. In coming up with a name, I realize there is a risk of sounding snide. That’s not my intent, however. I think there are real reasons for this phenomenon, mostly having to do with the complex challenge of raising a child in the 21st century. As a parent I have empathy for these challenges. Nevertheless, I do think Alexa parenting is a growing problem, and not because it is inconvenient for teachers and schools. The reason it is a problem actually has very little to do with the impact on educators. I believe it is a problem because of the impact it can have on kids, parents, and families.
In order to explain, let me give some more specific examples of Alexa parenting—then I’ll explain why I think Alexa parenting is a problem and suggest some ways to help parents diagnose and address it.
Examples of Alexa parenting
As I said, some Alexa parenting is simply an expression of entitlement and over-parenting done by people who are too busy to over-parent personally. So much has been written about over parenting, that I don’t think it merits any great discussion here. Many people have written about this. Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure is incredibly helpful (I've also written about this, here and here).
There is also the reality that parents, even those who don't over-parent, are simply busier today. Family schedules are extremely demanding. I think many parents are overwhelmed by all there is to do. To be sure, I think schools can be part of the solution here by being very thoughtful about what they ask of families. I've written about that here, by the way.
Another reason for Alexa parenting is lack of confidence in a teacher or school. Some parents feel the need to provide detailed guidance or persistent advocacy. Feeling that your child is not getting what they need from a school is a uniquely challenging situation and is beyond the scope of this post today. I’ve been here as a parent, and I have enormous sympathy for people trapped in poor school settings. Here and here are a few thoughts on this topic. Perhaps it will help provide some food for thought. One note: I would encourage anyone in this situation to be very careful to make sure that their lack of confidence is not simply a matter of having different preferences.
Sometimes, Alexa parents worry that other parents are not sufficiently modeling or teaching the right things to their child’s peers. They may feel that other parents are not adequately monitoring social media or giving sufficient oversight for things ranging from drinking and vaping to the content of movies, gaming, and other entertainment. They may be legitimately worried that some important parenting is not happening. In these cases, they want the schools to pick up the slack.
Still another cause of Alexa parenting is when parents do not feel confident in themselves. Whether their child is struggling with academic, behavioral, or social problems, they sometimes do not feel equal to the task. Unsure of what to do, they turn to the school, wanting the school to fix the problems.
A final manifestation of Alexa parenting comes from thoughtful people who are rightly worried about a serious social problem—anything from anxiety to vaping to sexual consent to environmental damage and on and on. They feel an urgent need to do something about these very real, very serious problems, and wonder why the school doesn’t do more about it.
It is interesting to me that many of these manifestations stem from a lack of confidence in something or someone, and even a degree of fear.
Why Alexa Parenting is problematic
I am deeply sympathetic to most of these situations. Parenting can be a scary, lonely thing. This is exacerbated by the high-stakes feeling that seems to attend so much of parenting in the 21st century. It seems easy for kids to fall into all sorts of problems that could seriously harm their futures. The world we live in certainly provides plenty of cause for worry, and a great deal of the really frightening things seem beyond our control.
We also live in a time when we hear often from experts. I think this has created a sense among many of us that every problem needs an expert, or at least, that an expert can solve every problem. As parents, we certainly know we aren't experts and when things get difficult, I think our instinct is to reach out for the expert, the one who knows what to do, the one who can prescribe a solution.
Nevertheless, the problem with Alexa parenting is that it places responsibility for solving the problems with schools, who likely do not have the best tools and resources to do this.
To begin with, schools and teachers already struggle to complete a huge list of mandated tasks. The day is already packed, and most school staff and educators are already spread very thin. Most school staff, from teachers to nurses to counselors to administrators are professionals, but they might be likened to a pediatrician or general practitioner. They are generally equipped to handle a common range of problems and challenges, but some problems are big enough, deep enough, or uncommon enough that a specialist may be needed.
This is also important to remember when sending in requests for the school to address some topic, even if it's simply to spread awareness. Most teachers and administrators can probably give a huge list of suggestions they've had from parents. "Can you please talk to the kids about x?" Sometimes this is prompted by a news story about a particular problem. Other times it may come in response to what they have heard their child's peers are doing. Or possibly their child.
A few minutes here, a few minutes there quickly add up.
The problem is that when a parent requested that a school allot time and energy to a particular task or address a subject--even a worthy subject, it may seem simple. But such requests can quickly become a huge list. Schools simply can’t do all the good things that be desirable, even if the requests are important and deserving, such as addressing cyber safety, drugs, nutrition, or suicide prevention.
Beyond this, even if they had time, schools have very limited tools, which they are probably already deploying. This is an important point that I think Alexa parents often overlook. Even assuming they had the time and the bandwidth, schools are limited in what they can do because they are limited in their tools.
A trivial example makes an important point. Years ago, I directed a play with young, inexperienced actors. I had spent months trying to get them to speak loudly and clearly. I had told them dozens of times to be louder and tried everything I knew. A parent came to dress rehearsals and turned to me frequently to say, “I can’t hear. Tell them to be louder.” She correctly saw the problem, but didn’t realize I was already doing all I could. Sometimes there is not a quick fix for a problem, no special tools or silver bullet the school is hoarding.
It’s not new that schools and teachers are tasked with an enormous amount of non-teaching work. Using schools as a resource to provide social and other services has been going on for decades and more.
Alexa parenting is different because it comes from individuals, not agencies, legislatures, or society at large. Sometimes, it comes from individuals who have many other resources.
It is understandable that parents want help in addressing difficult challenges or all kinds, and it’s laudable to ask for help. I’ve written before about how teachers can be helpful mentors and guides for parents.
But, while teachers can be good allies, no teacher or school can ever really replace the efforts of a parent. This is true even when a parent is flawed and imperfect (meaning all of us).
Consider the example of online behavior and screen time. I'm using this example, but you could switch that to nearly anything else.
A school can suggest rules and teach about being careful online. They can ban phone use and filter school computers and networks. They can host speakers about internet safety, and develop policies about cyber-bullying. The can forward articles by thought leaders in school newsletters and post on social media (chances are they are already doing this with only mild success and impact).
Should an infraction occur, a school can discipline students who make bad choices. But essentially, a school’s tools are limited to warning in advance, creating rules, and addressing infractions, either by punishment or more restorative methods. Their jurisdiction is also very limited.
The power of a family
Families, on the other hand, can monitor texts and set parameters for when and how phones are used. They can have regular discussions to check in. They can discuss and reinforce a family’s values in a specific context. They can come up with unique plans and approaches to a child’s online life and help proactively strive for digital citizenship.
Should a problem occur, families can respond with something unique and tailored to a specific child and situation. They can impose corrective consequences immediately, without investigations. Parents don't have to have proof! They can create solutions that address problems as well as teaching better behavior. They can follow-up consistently over weeks, months, and years if needed.
Families may not have perfect, ready-made solutions. Some efforts may be clunky and not-ideal. Some may even be counter-productive. But families have flexibility, proximity, constancy, authority, and power. They can act based on instinct and intuition. They have maximum investment in the outcome and care about the child more than even a caring teacher or school.
From personal challenges to larger issues, families may be better suited to manage many of the things schools are often asked to address, and this is why I believe Alexa parenting is a problem for children: it overlooks the most promising solutions in favor of the least effective.
Am I an Alexa Parent?
None of this is to parents can or should do everything on their own. The point I want to make is that schools should be a resource--sometimes an important one. But they should be not the first call, and any request or suggestion needs to be carefully considered in light of what is realistically possible.
One give-away of Alexa parenting is if you ever catch yourself proposing the school do something outside of what they normally do. Even more if you then add, "I'm not sure how you would do that..." or words to that effect.
Not every request is wrong, and I don't mean to suggest that. There are times schools can and should act. But I think the pendulum is swinging away from what is reasonable and realistic. Having caught myself falling into Alexa parenting before, so I’ve developed a few questions I try to ask myself before I make a request.
1. Is this really a problem, or simply a momentary frustration?
2. Is this simply a matter of preferring a different outcome, approach, method, etc?
3. Does my request facilitate or decrease my child’s responsibility for their life, or my responsibility for my child?
4. Does my request facilitate or decrease my child’s chances to develop the independence and autonomy necessary for successful adulthood?
5. What kind of time and resources will my request realistically require from someone else?
6. Is what I am asking consistent with the mission of the school? Is it consistent with the resources of the school? Does the school have a special ability or unique tool that can address this problem?
7. Is what I am asking truly within the jurisdiction of the school?
8. Will my request require someone to exceed the requirements of their job? Am I being generous with someone else’s time and energy?
9. Is my reason for asking based on distrust, either of other parents or the school?
10. Have I already used all my own resources in addressing this—including networks of friends, family, community, other professionals, etc.?
11. Can the school or teacher realistically get the outcome I want?
12. Am I trying to get appropriate help from the school, seeking collaboration? Or am I simply telling them what I want them to do? Do I seek guidance, collaboration, and help, or do I make requests and issue directives?
13. How often do I contact the school? What is the nature of my requests? Am I treating school staff as if they are simply part of my personal support staff? Am I taking a teacher’s limited prep time with requests that they help manage my child’s life and scheduled? Am I using school staff to fill in gaps in my child or family’s communication and organization? If every child in my child’s class contacted the teacher with the frequency I do, will the teacher be able to do his or her job?
Here is the big question for me: do I see the school or the family as the primary place to address challenges and problems?
What schools and teachers can do.
Schools and teachers have a unique and limited mission. Like any other person or organization, success requires them to focus on doing a few things well.
One of the things, besides teaching, that teachers can give parents is perspective. They are not infallible, but they have wide experience with seeing children of a particular age. They can help parents know if something seems normal and usual or if there might be grounds for concern about something. They can help suggest strategies to work on various challenges. They can give advice based on what they have seen in the past.
Sometimes, a teacher might have the sort of unique relationship with a student that will allow them to have a direct conversation. They might have some influence with the child and can provide unique motivation or guidance. Every teacher I know is very willing to help all they can. But be careful with such requests. Teachers don’t have any magic wands or silver bullets. All they can do is sit down and talk. Nothing more. I think our pop culture (think every sit-com about families) has led us to think that difficult problems are generally solved with a single conversation. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true. But this is really not the way it usually works. So even if they can open up a dialogue, they are probably not well positioned to follow-up and check in with a great degree of regularity.
How to stop being an Alexa Parent
Alexa parenting is, I think, an outgrowth of a lot of complicated social factors: parental anxiety, a high-stakes world, over-reliance on experts, fear of what others are doing/not doing, perceived lack of control, increased busy-ness, worry about difficult problems. These are knotty problems with no easy answers.
Still, if you think you are prone to Alexa parenting it is worth the effort to change. Not because it will make life easier for teachers or school officials (although it will). The real reason is that your child needs your imperfect efforts far more than anything else. Your efforts are the thing most likely to help them grow into happy, successful adults. Your kids need you.
Happily, Alexa parenting can be unlearned very quickly. Simply being aware of it is the first step. Re-establishing the family as the prime authority makes a huge difference.
Beyond that, I have five suggestions. These seem simple, almost simplistic. But they have been very useful to me as a parent, and I think they would make a big difference.
1. Trust Yourself.
I think the root of most Alexa parenting is a feeling of uncertainty, a lack of confidence in our ability to address various problems. We live in a very specialized world, and can get enormous amounts of information quickly—sometimes that can be paralyzing.
We often hear from experts in many areas of our lives. That has benefits, undoubtedly, but I worry it creates an expectation that every problem requires an expert, that every problem has a clearly defined answer that someone else knows. I think many times, Alexa parents assume that someone has the “right” answer for whatever they are struggling with.
While knowledge and expertise are valuable tools, I would suggest that most often successful parenting is a process, not a collection of specific inputs or actions leading to specific outcomes.
Parenting is a cumulative, iterative process that happens over time. It’s a constant stream of conversation, correction, and recalibration. Successful parenting is less about correctly executing specific strategies at precise moments than it is about engaging persistently with a child. It is more a matter of consistency and constancy.
Trust yourself. Try something. Maturity will kick in at some point and take care of a lot of the struggles your child has. At that time, they will have the values habits they have developed. Start with thinking about what values and habits you want to help them develop.
2. Engage. Try. Repeat.
Over years of teaching, I’ve seen successful parents with many different backgrounds, approaches, and styles. The common factor is that they engaged based on their experience, judgment and values. They were willing to parent against the grain of what everyone else was doing and they were willing to endure hard battles for the long run. They said “No” when needed. When they made mistakes, they regrouped and tried something else. Sometimes many times. Most of all, they keep going and see themselves as being primarily responsible to teach, guide, and inform their child’s values, behavior, and life experience.
Leadership expert Tim Elmore tells us to parent from wisdom, not from fear. This is an incredibly empowering stance.
Next time you are faced with a difficult problem--try something. If it doesn't work, then try something else. And something else. If needed, seek guidance from qualified professionals, but humans have been parenting now for tens of thousands of years. You've got this.
3. Seek Mentors
One other thing I believe may cause Alexa parenting is that growing isolation has led to fewer sources for parents to get help. A great deal has been written about families getting smaller and social networks and institutions fraying and fragmenting. Fewer people are involved in churches, synagogues, civic clubs, PTA, bowling leagues, and neighborhoods. In the past, these institutions provided a chance to connect with people in different walks of life. One benefit of that is the chance to be mentored by more experienced, seasoned parents.
My wife and I often took advantage of this at church or at work, counseling with seasoned veterans—not our peers. Doing this often helped us find out that some problem with our children wasn’t as serious as we feared. Or, if a problem was serious, we could get guidance and suggestions. Seek mentors. Teachers and schools can be useful partners and allies, and I always encourage families to develop these relationships. But ultimately, schools must teach. They must set rules and deal with infractions, but neither their missions nor their resources are unlimited.
One of the most important things a teacher does to teach is to try to connect. Until you have connected with students, there’s very little chance of teaching them anything. Parents have a lot to do. They are tasked with an enormous amount. It’s easy, in the press of all we have to do, to lose sight of the need to connect with our children. But finding time to simply connect with them can have a huge impact on the problems that worry us. As we connect, we can discuss the problems that worry us. I know this sounds simplistic, but it really makes an enormous difference in many, many ways.
Part of this connection ought to be with other parents. Schools field a lot of complaints and concerns about other parents. Getting to know the parents of our children’s peers ought to be a priority. Hosting a social gathering for other parents, being active in parent associations, community groups, etc. can all have big benefits--far more than trying to get the school to pick up the slack for things you perceive the other parents are not doing. Build a working relationship, or at least a reasonable acquaintance with other parents, ideally before you have concerns or problems.
If problems do emerge, try contacting parents before you contact the school. I have seen complex, apparently intractable problems solved very quickly when parents picked up the phone and talked with other parents. Yes, this is a risk--and it may not always be appropriate. It's hard to give a good rule here. But the potential rewards are also enormous. My sense from talking to people is that parent to parent communication has become the exception, not the norm. I think it would benefit us all to swing the pendulum back a bit.
5. Avoid Gossip
One of the root causes of Alexa parenting is fear, insecurity, lack of confidence. One of the best ways I know to develop and feed fear and insecurity is to gossip. Texting and social media have made this ancient human tendency easier than ever. But gossiping breeds mistrust, worry, dissatisfaction. It impedes connection and confidence. It may seem harmless, but I’m convinced that it causes an enormous amount of harm.
The good news is that Alexa parenting can be stopped. It's as easy--and hard--as simply being a parent. Taking responsibility, developing confidence, finding mentors, connecting, and engaging are all powerful. Even a flawed family has enormous, probably untapped, power. As I've watched my children grow into happy adulthood, I've been struck by how effective even very imperfect parenting can be.
Happy parenting--you've got this!
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