Is it mothering or smothering?

January 13, 2011

QI've been reading about parents who hover over their children, and I know how detrimental that can be. But now I wonder: Could my husband and I be helicopter parents?

As a stay-at-home mom, I am very involved at my kids' public schools because we want to help them navigate the educational system and become independent students and valuable members of their community.

I think it is crucial to my children's success in school for me to form partnerships with their teachers, but I also do it because I value what the teachers have to offer. I appreciate all they do for our children, and I enjoy them for who they are. They are so much more than just the teachers of my children; they are the adults who are in charge in our absence.

But how do we know if we are communicating with a teacher too much or too often? How much feedback should we expect from them? Can we have a real connection with public school elementary teachers when they have so many children to teach? And how do we know if we have crossed the line?

AIf you have crossed the line, you aren't alone.

It wasn't Dr. Spock or Betty Friedan who made parents start treating their children so differently in the 1960s; it was the washing machines, the clothes dryers and the dishwashers that did so much of the housework; the frozen foods that helped us get dinner on the table more easily and the air conditioners that made us shut the windows and made dusting almost obsolete.

Although a lot of the housework disappeared - hallelujah! - so did the benign neglect that children had always enjoyed. Mothers at last had time to read to their children, go to their games and drive them wherever they needed to go. Appliances, it turned out, helped the parents much more than the children.

Even though children seem to be programmed from dawn to bedtime these days, they actually need to be ignored and unnoticed - or to think that they're ignored and unnoticed - for a little while each day. This gives them the privacy they need to imagine, to invent, to think their way out of a problem.

As tempting as it is to help your children navigate the system - any system - they need to learn this skill on their own if they possibly can. The more you do for your children, the less independent they'll be.

Most teachers want parents to do a few things:

3Offer their help in the first few weeks of school.

3Occasionally ask the teacher, "How did it go today?" when you pick up your children.

3Attend every teacher conference.

3Set up a five-minute appointment with the teacher if you have a small, specific concern.

3Ask for a team meeting if you have a big concern about a child in the older grades, so you can see all of his teachers at once.

You don't, however, have to go on every field trip or see every game. The reason: You want your children to know that you trust them and you trust their school. The sooner they develop their own expectations and their own regulations, the sooner they will learn to discipline themselves.

You can volunteer to work in the school library, the office, the playground, the lunchroom or any classroom except the ones to which your children are assigned. Parents are often an embarrassment, even to a second-grader.

It's really a matter of letting your children go, of letting them try - and letting them fail, of giving them wings as well as roots. One of the books that explains this approach best is "Raising Adults: Getting Kids Ready for the Real World" by Jim Hancock, first published in 1999 by Pinon and newly released by Barnes & Noble as an e-book for $3. It's clear, it's straightforward and it's a winner.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com .

Beyond the Almanac

To learn more about helicopter parents - and why you should avoid that particular flight - read "Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times " by sociologist Margaret K. Nelson (NYU Press, 2010, $28).

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