We re-wrote the rules of parenting so thoroughly that they even became ingrained in public policy. No Child Left Behind and later Obama’s Race to the Top make parental involvement in education a top priority for improving academic performance. Parents are told to volunteer at schools, do homework nightly with their children, attend PTA meetings, read the books their kids are reading. Schools have even been penalized if their parental attendance is low at parent-teacher conferences.
We all know parents who spend more time on their kids’ science projects and research papers than the kids themselves. I made feeble efforts for years to do homework with my kids. It always seemed a bit awkward and unnatural and almost always ended up irritating both parties.
So I read this headline in the New York Times with the joy of a man who has finally been told that eating kale isn’t actually good for him: “Parental involvement is overrated.” What follows is an essay by two sociologists, Angel Harris and Keith Robinson, summarizing their longitudinal study of the measurable effects of parental involvement on student performance. They found that regular parental help with homework “yielded no benefit to children’s test scores or grades.” They write, “In fact, there were more instances in which children had higher levels of achievement when their parents were less involved than there were among those whose parents were more involved.”
When I was in elementary school in the sixties, my parents only set foot in the building when I had done something bad. For the school to be graced by my parents’ presence, I had to punch another kid or tell a teacher too loudly in front of the whole class that she didn’t know what she was talking about. Breaking a window at recess with a baseball worked, too.
Our parents were the opposite of the helicopter parents we became. They were submarines—hiding below the surface of our lives, surfacing only when they had to.
We were free not only to master our homework on our own—or take the consequences of flubbing it—we were free to roam. We organized baseball games and raked people’s yards to get money to buy baseball cards and candy from stores we walked to on our own. We built tree houses and forts in the woods behind our school with Dad’s tools but without Dad’s help. We had huge blocks of unscheduled time. We rode our bikes farther than we should have and explored neighborhoods outside our own. We learned the art of entertaining ourselves.
I don’t know how we took that freedom and denied it to our children. We were raised in The Wonder Years and gave our kids The Anxiety Years. We hurried them from one extra-curricular enrichment activity to the next every Saturday. We gave them phones so they could call us every twelve minutes if somehow we weren’t in the stands or seats watching them or driving them to their next event.
When Zack, my oldest, was in third grade in the mid-nineties, we lived a few blocks from the school. No big streets to cross. Most of his friends walked to and from school. Zack tried to organize baseball games after school. But none of his friends were allowed to go to the school playground after school to join him. Their parents were afraid. These were the milk carton years, which were crucial in the evolution of the helicopter parent.
I called several parents to plead the case that our kids be allowed to play ball after school like we did. Several mothers offered to accompany the kids. I tried to break it to them that part of what our boys needed was the absence of adults. Several parents told me, frankly, that it was a safety issue. Just too dangerous.
Those damn milk cartons. They created the illusion that kids were being snatched off the streets at an alarming rate. But the truth was that most of the kids on milk cartons were taken by a relative, usually one of their parents. I did some research and found that the number of child abductions by strangers had remained unchanged in the past 50 years even as the population grew. I told the parents that the odds of us being abducted in The Wonder Years was slightly greater than the risk for our kids today. The parents remained unmoved. Fear is not subject to the laws of logic.
A generation of parents, driven partly by fear and partly by good intention, became stalkers. We left no stone unturned. We wanted to know and share every experience and emotion our kids had. Reading kids’ diaries and searching their computers became common practice. We Boomer parents adopted the NSA policies before the NSA did. This next generation of parents, aided by technology, will make us Boomers look like rookies.
The study on parental involvement did find that parents mattered quite a bit, just not in the ways we thought. The authors found that the main thing parents could do to help their children’s academic performance was to set high expectations, to make it clear that they expected their children to get good grades and to go to college.
The study didn’t extrapolate its findings beyond school. But it’s not a huge leap to believe that there’s a limit to the upside of parental involvement in other areas of our kids’ lives, too.
The current generation of parents is clearly taking its cues from the Boomers. They might do well to look at their grandparents’ style—the greatest generation, the submarine parents. Maybe they did more than save the world from fascism—maybe they nailed the art of parenting, too.
Jim Sollisch is a creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising in Cleveland, Ohio.