I just read another piece by a teacher complaining about lawnmower parents, and it prompted a strong reaction. I agree that parents need to take a step back (sometimes several) and stop intervening in their children’s lives. Overparenting is a big problem, regardless of the motor vehicle employed as a metaphor: helicopter, snowplow or lawnmower. As a teacher I’ve certainly seen and dealt with it.
However, I’m also a parent, and see another side to this equation, one I increasingly think teachers, coaches and other authority figures need to consider.
To parent these days is to live in a constant state of worry that the pathway a child must walk to a secure, successful life is being narrowed — by grade inflation, artificial intelligence, automation, globalization, sexism or whatever other ill is trending on any given day. Not only is the way narrow, the ways one might fall off that path seem to be increasing. A momentary lapse of judgment on social media, a word or action being misinterpreted, institutional racism, bullying or prejudice might prevent a child from realizing an important opportunity. At least one reason parents are so protective these days is that the ways in which a child’s future can be messed up appear to have multiplied exponentially.
The education system has to answer for some of this. Yes, some parents are unreasonably fixated on their child attending an Ivy League school — as evidenced by the recent indictment of 33 wealthy parents for allegedly bribing their children’s way into top universities. But there are other, valid concerns. College admissions are getting more competitive. Those of us in education can tell parents not to worry so much about a bad grade or a disciplinary action, but that may ring a bit hollow when the child’s future seems at stake.
Even without admissions worries, the cost of higher education, including state colleges, has increased significantly; scholarships and other forms of aid have become more important. Consequently, parents’ focus on their child getting a scholarship might be far greater. My parents hoped I’d get a scholarship, but it wasn’t make-or-break. College wasn’t so expensive then.
There are emotional considerations as well. Parents are wired to protect their kids. Threats to a child’s well-being bring a powerful, visceral response. Parents need to control this impulse and make sure it’s warranted. A C-minus on a test is not the same thing as a saber-toothed tiger. At the same time, educators might consider how to minimize the number of occasions when this protective instinct is triggered.
I’ve been reminded time and again over the years of how much power a teacher has in the daily, lived experience of a child, and by extension, the parents'. Our outlook, philosophy, preferences and moods have tremendous impact on a child. No parent wants his or her child to be treated unfairly or harshly. Almost any parent will naturally fight anything that seems arbitrary, unfair or disproportionate. This includes discipline and grading, as well as other decisions such as playing time in athletics or casting in a play.
That doesn’t excuse a parent’s bad behavior. But I would suggest that educators can meet parents partway.
For starters, teachers can strive to make sure that our actions and tone are professional and carefully considered. We should remember our power and ensure that our interactions with parent and child are measured and thoughtful.
I believe a great deal of parental stress comes because something is unfamiliar. Coaching a team, directing a play or teaching seventh grade is familiar to those of us who do it. We understand the rhythms, the highs, the lows, and the boundaries of what failure means in any of these activities. We understand the real worst-case scenarios and know that a bad test grade won’t ruin a life. We realize that playing time does not determine ultimate happiness and that getting a lead is not what determines the quality of the experience in a play. But we know all this because we have experience and perspective that a parent may not have.
This has a fairly easy fix. Schools and teachers can clearly communicate what parents might expect. What are the normal ups and downs? What is the goal of a project? What are the stakes? When should a parent not worry? When should a parent worry?
Here’s a small example. I have a required parent meeting before each play. I detail the process. I discuss the odds of getting a lead and talk about how a parent can help manage a child’s disappointment and why that’s important. I warn in advance that everyone will be exhausted by the end, that dress rehearsals are awful, but that a successful opening night quickly washes this all away. This helps the parents understand the parameters of participation. It gives them the context I have. With this perspective, almost everyone responds in a supportive way.
It isn’t much work to email parents with a heads-up about a difficult project or to warn them that a stressful time is coming. Helping parents understand why and how decisions are made helps give them confidence that an action or policy is not arbitrary, even if they don’t like it.
Another powerful help is articulating a clear method for parents to handle problems and concerns. If parents know a teacher is willing to listen respectfully and give student concerns a fair hearing, they are more likely to let the child work things out independently. That goes a long way to reducing overly protective or interfering parent responses.
I believe many parents understand that overparenting is a serious problem; they want to do the right thing. But anxiety rushes into a vacuum of information and experience. In that case, most parents will default to protecting their child. The dangers associated with overparenting are, after all, largely in the future. The dangers of a child being harmed by a teacher’s decision or action are immediate, even if largely unfounded.
If we want to reduce helicopter/snowplow/lawnmower parenting, then those of us with power over a child’s life might work to identify and mitigate some of the structural stresses that contribute to it. Part of that means actively working to make sure there is no shortage of information or context.
Braden Bell is a teacher, writer and director from Nashville. The author of seven novels, he blogs and writes a newsletter with reflections about parenting adolescents. He’s on Twitter @bradenbellcom.