How I Became an Accidental Helicopter Parent
Jackson and I rushed through the school hallways careful not to slip on the rivers of melted snow and mud on the linoleum floors. We were late for our scheduled conference with his fourth grade teacher.
Though I’d left work right at 3:00, planning to pick Jackson up on the way (they had the day off school), I was behind schedule. By the time we arrived at school we were ten minutes late for what I thought was our 3:30 appointment. When we finally arrived at the classroom I peeked in to find a couple already sitting at the table, talking to the teacher. Then I looked at the posted schedule. Instead of 3:30, we were scheduled for 3:00 My heart sank. We weren’t just a little late; we were a lot late.
Unfortunately, I had something I wanted to discuss with the teacher. Something I thought was important.
Getting Down to Business
“Let’s just sit and wait,” I told Jack. “It looks like she has a dinner break right after us and she might be able to chat for a minute at least.”
Jackson shrugged. He used the time to call his dad and wish him a Happy Valentine’s Day. And I used the time to berate myself for somehow getting the time wrong. By the time the teacher finished up with the parents who had managed to arrive at their appointed time correctly, it was already 4:10.
However, after saying goodbye to the other parents, Jackson’s teacher welcomed us in. She promised us fifteen minutes at least. I apologized profusely for the mix up. She smiled and brushed away my excuses. “No problem,” she said.
And then we got down to business. Jackson had prepared his conference folder and his teacher had added her comments. “We have all good things to talk about!” the teacher said.”So this should be easy.” We sat at the child-sized chairs and the conference began.
My Burning Question
The teachers at my son’s school encourage the children to attend the conference. Why this is, I don’t exactly know. But I think it’s to support responsibility and improve transparency. Throughout Jackson’s conference she spoke primarily to him, prompting him to share his insights on his own progress and add color commentary to the test scores. While the focus of his teacher’s constructive criticism was on checking his work and slowing down, the majority of the feedback was encouraging and positive.
We’d almost reached the fifteen minute mark and I was anxious to take no more of the teacher’s borrowed time than necessary. But, I still had my burning question. I saw my opening and I dove right in.
“Now,” I said, “the one thing I wanted to ask about is his book reports.”
“Uh huh,” his teacher nodded encouragingly.
“What more can I do to support him? I mean, he wants to be exceeding expectations.”
“No,” Jackson said, “MOM wants me to be exceeding. I’m happy with what I get.”
The teacher took a deep breath before she answered.
“Support,” she replied, “that’s the key.” The teacher then spoke directly to my son.
“Jackson, it’s your report, right?”
“We already know your mom can exceed expectations. She’s already been to fourth grade. The goal is for you to read the instructions, to do your own work, and to turn it in. You’re the one responsible, not your mom. Right?”
Jackson nods again, very seriously.
I interrupt, “So, I shouldn’t be helping him?”
She turns to me, “Well, you can look it over, sure. But the point is, we want the child’s authentic work. It’s up to him to read the instructions and do the best he can. That way, we know where he’s really at and what we need to work on with him. If it’s too perfect, I know it really wasn’t the child, but the parent doing the work.”
Now it was my turn to nod solemnly.
The conference was soon over. I apologized again for my lateness, and thanked her for fitting us in. She smiled graciously, said she was happy to see us both, and was glad we were able to meet with her. My head hung low. Though Jackson was ebullient, pleased with his teacher’s encouraging words, I felt troubled.
We snaked through the hallways once again and walked to the car. It would be a few days before I figured out exactly why I was so uncomfortable.
An Accidental Helicopter
The truth was, I had spent a lot of time with Jack on his book reports. I wanted them to be exceptional. I wanted him to be exceptional.
The definition of “helicopter parent” in Merriam-Webster reads, “a parent who is overly involved in the life of his or her child.” An article in Parents magazine entitled, “What Is Helicopter Parenting?” explains:
“In elementary school, helicopter parenting can be revealed through a parent ensuring a child has a certain teacher or coach, selecting the child’s friends and activities, or providing disproportionate assistance for homework and school projects.”
Disproportionate assistance for homework and school projects? Check.
Generally, I am not a helicopter parent. In the article, the four reasons given for what triggers this kind of behavior in a parent don’t apply to me. Of course, I worry about my child’s overall success in life. But I also believe in the power of overcoming adversity. In fact, we deliberately cultivate resilience through new and challenging experiences. He has responsibilities at home–lots of them. We do many of the “right” things to build this critical character trait. But, the book report still snared me.
Though I want to keep thinking about this, here’s what I’ve deduced so far: I want to exceed my own expectations as a writer and as a parent. But if Jackson doesn’t exceed expectations on his book report, perhaps I’d failed at both. I realize this is nonsensical. But ego is rarely a rational beast. When Jackson said it was MOM, not him, pushing for the exceptional grade, he was right. I wanted him to earn the best grade because I wanted to earn it too.
The helicopter parenting definition focuses on parents trying to prevent pain for their kids. But that’s not what I was doing. I projected myself onto my child. I made his book report problem my problem. Yes, that’s what helicopter parents do. But, I also made his success into a marker of my success. That dimension seems to be missing in the helicopter parenting literature. We aren’t hovering just because we want to protect our kids, we’re hovering sometimes–maybe more often than not–to protect ourselves.
So what do I do now? First, I’m going to get the heck out of the way for Jack to take control of his book reports. Second, I’m going to renew my vigilance and awareness on my ego when it comes to the successes or failures of my child.
As a wise parent I know once said to her clinging kindergartner, “Honey, I’m me. You’re you.” It’s as simple as that.
Your turn: Have you ever found yourself “helicoptering?” What did you do about it?
Originally published at angelanoelauthor.com on February 19, 2019.