As a college professor, I can almost hear the thup-thup-thup of parental propellers as students enter my classroom at the start of each semester. Helicopter parenting, or the phenomenon of overparenting and overprotecting children, has reached startling heights in recent years.
When I was in college, I never dreamt of involving my parents in my academic struggles. In fact, I hid poor test scores from them, in fear of retribution. Now, when college students receive a bad grade, often the first person they call or (let’s be honest) text is mom.
Because mom will swoop in and save the day.
Therein lies the problem. If parents always intervene to help their child escape the consequences of their actions, especially in their academic lives, it creates limitations for the child that can follow them all the way to college.
My students are brilliant, talented, passionate individuals, but some fall short in the areas of basic reasoning, planning and problem solving.
They lack executive functioning skills.
These skills help us juggle multiple tasks, manage our time, remember and follow instructions, self-evaluate, set priorities and adjust to the unexpected. Former Stanford Dean, Julie Lythcott-Haims has documented students’ lack of executive functioning in her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.
“Overhelping causes harm,” she writes. “It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”
So, what’s a modern mom to do?
Stop your engine. Pull back. Release your grip. Give your children opportunities to make mistakes when they’re young, evaluate them and course correct. Don’t engineer outcomes for them.
I know it’s heartbreaking to see your children fail, struggle, face consequences or feel uncomfortable. But failure is an integral part of learning. And the faster they fail, the faster they learn. Here are three problem areas I’ve identified and solutions you can use to raise more self-reliant children.
Problem: Inability to Improvise
I’ve seen students fail to submit homework because the printer in our classroom was broken. Our classroom is located in a five-story building, where each floor has ten classrooms, most of which have printers. There’s also a campus library with printers, or they could have printed at Staples or FedEx the night before.
For some reason, none of these other options occur to them. When mom and dad always step in to fix things, children don’t learn how to adapt when the unexpected happens.
Solution: Encourage Alternative Thinking
Repeat this mantra to your children: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” Things don’t always go as planned, and we need to teach them to be flexible, nimble, always have a backup plan.
If your daughter wants a peanut butter and jelly sandwich but you’re out of jelly, have her brainstorm alternatives. Encourage her to look in the pantry or fridge to see what other things might be yummy with peanut butter. She might suggest a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Or peanut butter and honey. This will help her learn to cope, seek out new solutions and foster her creativity.
If she forgets her lunch altogether, don’t run it back to school for her. I know this is gut wrenching, because you’re worried she’ll starve to death. But instead, she’ll learn to borrow money from a friend or teacher, ask others if she can have their unwanted food or, in the worst case, she might go hungry for the day. She won’t die, but those hunger pains ensure she’s less likely to forget in the future.
Problem: Confrontation Avoidance
Many projects in my class are collaborative, where students work in teams to solve problems. Conflicts among group members are common. When a student informs me that say, John, isn’t doing any work on the project, my first question is, “Have you spoken with John about this?” The answer is usually no.
Whether it’s with peers, teachers or coaches, if mom and dad are always the ones handling conflict, children don’t have the opportunity to advocate for themselves. This promotes passive-aggressive behavior where young adults avoid or ignore confrontation, procrastinate, sulk or make comments laced with hidden hostility.
Solution: Let Them Fight Their Own Battles
In the case of John above, I’ll suggest his teammates say, “John, we’ve asked you to do X, Y and Z, none of which have been completed yet. Is there something you’re struggling with?” This way the group can provide assistance or reallocate tasks, if necessary.
If your son is upset he isn’t starting in this weekend’s basketball game, have him discuss it with his coach, not you. The coach will likely identify skills your son needs to improve upon. This will give him a deeper understanding of his weaknesses and confidence when speaking with authority figures.
The Problem: Thinking Grades Assess Effort
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of overparenting is that children grow up believing effort is all that matters. Everyone gets a gold star for showing up. Everyone gets a trophy for being on the team.
When students get to college, they feel assignments should be graded based on how hard they worked, not how well they performed. And when the grade comes back lower than they expect, they don’t use it as an opportunity to look inward and grow. Instead, they point the finger outward, making every excuse in hopes of a grade change.
Solution: Refocus on Performance
The next time your daughter brings home a low grade on a paper, have a discussion. Ask her to examine her actions. Why does she think she performed poorly?
Did she not understand the instructions? Show her how to underline or highlight important parts of the assignment, such as length of the paper, number of references and so on. This teaches her to pay attention to detail.
Did she run out of time? Teach her to prioritize tasks and schedule small chunks of time throughout the week to work on a larger project. This promotes time management and prevents procrastination.
Is she having difficulty with certain topics? Have her re-read the textbook material, rewrite the assignment and resubmit it to her teacher for additional feedback, not a grade change. This instills persistence and a strong work ethic.
We all want our kids to be happy and successful.
I certainly want that for my 4-year-old son, Logan. But his success should be of his own making, not mine. And it should be complete with all the challenges and struggles that make hard-earned achievements so rewarding.
So, the next time you feel the urge to put the key in the ignition and come in hot at a fellow parent, coach or teacher on behalf of your child, stop, take a deep breath and remind yourself that your child needs to pilot their own life.