How I Became an Accidental Helicopter Parent

helicopter parenting; book reports

By Angela Noel Lawson

February 19, 2019

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?”

He nodded.

“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.

helicopter parenting
Simple formula for avoiding helicoptering: I am me. You are you.
Why?

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.

Next Steps

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?

 

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

21 thoughts on “How I Became an Accidental Helicopter Parent”

  1. This is such an honest post, Angela. Helicopter parenting is something I’ve been guilty of too. I am far worse than my husband. I completely agree. I think I do it more because a high mark for my daughter is like getting a high mark myself. I don’t want other people thinking my child is bad at school work as I think we see our children as a reflection of ourselves. This post is a great reminder to keep a check on myself & my actions (and my motivations). By the way, Jackson sounds like a very bright & astute child. You’re clearing doing a good job at raising him either way x

    1. I am, once again, so glad I am not alone with some of this stuff. The great part about parenting is that there really is no one right path. But, when these a-ha moments come of what I might want to be doing differently, I have that cring-y moment of “dang.” But then I am glad that I was able to spot the thing I want to do differently. The awareness is a gift. And if I can only hold onto it…
      Thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂

  2. Guilty. I hope to do better with my grandkids. Of course, it’s a different dynamic. But if I am to be a positive, and loving, influence in the their lives, I need to respect and honor not just who they are but how my daughters parent them.

  3. Angela, you already have a smart, independent little boy. The fact that he spoke up and said “MOM wants me to be exceeding. I’m happy with what I get.” is very impressive. I’d say that you’re doing an excellent job raising Jack. I think all parents are guilty of overstepping boundaries once-in-awhile for the exact reasons you stated – we want our children to succeed and maybe even exceed expectations. It’s our instincts. We continue to learn about this parenting thing each and every day, just as our children continue to learn.

    Also, I think that Jack has an excellent teacher. 🙂 She seems to know what her students can and should handle on their own, which is huge. Students will take a lot more pride in work they do on their own vs. work that someone else has helped them on. I’m blown away by how much work some parents do for their children, especially on projects. It’s not healthy for anyone. Great article, Angela!

    1. When he said that in the conference, honestly I was a little embarrassed. But then I realized, as you noted, that it was likely one of many times that I ought to let what he’s saying really sink in. Kids can be excellent mirrors to our own behavior AND teach us if we let them.
      She is a good teacher. I like her a lot. And Jack continues to declare that this is his favorite year. He can’t quite explain why. He’s had good teachers pretty much every year. But this one might be special.
      Thank you so much for reading and for adding your insights. You’re definitely right–I see it in myself too–when a child does his own work it makes a huge difference.

  4. I started to comment that I was fortunate not to hover. It was apparent very early the daughter was creative and the parents were hard science. We checked homework for completeness and obvious errors or omissions but mostly she got through academia on her own and quite well at that. But then I remembered how I would “encourage” extracurricular activities and “help out” with the parent groups. Hover I did and she still did quite well in spite of that. I guess kids are resilient like that. Happy parenting!

    1. Excellent reflection! And good job in avoiding too much hover.:)
      I think my friend Erin told the story of her father and how he said how the anxiety of parenting eases when an independent adult emerges. Until then, it feels like everything I do could be a misstep. But, then again, he is also his own person. Even if I mess it all up, raising a child is a partnership on a lot of fronts–including with the child him or herself. I’m glad to hear your child is both her own person and doing quite well!

  5. I actually think we give our kids the right amount of support–for my son, a lot, for my daughter, almost none. But the ego thing is ever present. Whenever I see the grades, the special awards, the detention slips, I always think about how it reflects on me as a parent. I do a pretty good job of not worrying about what other’s think about me, but in the realm of my children, I have a long way to go.

    1. I often wonder how I’d parent a second child. Would I be able to do what you did, and adjust my style and support for the child’s needs? I’d like to think so. But I will never know for sure!
      I take comfort in the fact that we all have a long way to go. I think claiming parenting perfection is the surest way to screw up a child. We’re always winging it in one way or the other. It’s slam poetry, not a sonnet.

  6. When my eldest daughter started secondary school and they had the first parents’ evening I went without her because I didn’t realise she was supposed to come! It seems absurd to me now that I didn’t take her, and it was kind of embarrassing! I am used to the teachers addressing her rather than me now. I think you and Jackson’s teacher and Jackson are all doing a brilliant job. It is inevitable that we project some of our own ambitions on to our children, and really good if we recognise when it happens. I have definitely encouraged my children in English because that was my subject. They are both very good at the subject, but my eldest is not bothered about doing as well in English as I had hoped! Since I realised it is up to her, I think she has been more free and motivated. It’s not easy being a parent and we can’t get everything right. Taking a step back is hard to do!

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience with your daughters. It’s encouraging to me to know we parents never really have all the answers–but keep trying our best.
      Taking a step back is hard. Particularly when my ego feels like it’s nose is out of joint. But, I keep trying! It’s good to know you can relate.

  7. I can see exactly how this would happen. And how it would happen to me! As a teacher I can see how it would happen to parents too. And it frequently does.
    I often catch myself doing the helicopter thing.
    Great post once again!

    1. You get both sides of this phenomenon. There’s a commercial for orange juice running on network TV right now–just noticed it after I wrote this post. It’s a little boy pouring his juice and his dad standing just out of view with that anxious look like he should intervene. But he doesn’t and the kid has the pride of filling his own juice cup. I thought it was kind of awesome that this commercial showed in such a simple way how little things–like juice pouring–can be big. Thank you for commenting!

  8. Im often doing the helicopter thing, doing both their homework the other week, making the river nile and a pirate ship was just one example. Trying to push them to do better and feeling disappointed when they don’t win an award. Friday before half term my 7 year old was star of the week, for his hard work in class and behaving on a school trip. (If he behaved on his school trip like he does with me he would be detention or the reflection room). Anyway so he is working and doing his best at school. There was a man visiting that day giving out prizes for writing. It was a Christmas piece of writing, my 7 year olds is a Santa poem and we put it on my blog. Well sounds bad but he did not win a prize and the thought went through my head, oh if he had only tried harder. Well actually the poem is on my blog and i liked it which is why we added it. So he did try, but I think I was possibly as disappointed as he was. I think it is very hard sometimes to just step back sometimes.. it is definitely something that I struggle with.

    1. It is hard! I even fought some of this just last night. My son was talking about a fort he wanted to build and I thought–I guess I’ll have to help him with that. But why? Why am I assuming he can’t do it on his own? Or that the fort he build himself isn’t superior (in his own eyes) than anything I would help him create?
      Your comment on your son’s Santa poem is spot on. You thought it was great–but it’s hard not to want that recognition from others too. I get it. We’re all just doing our best. And having an awareness of the small things we can do better is a very important step!

      1. Yes thanks Angela, yes it is so hard to hold back sometimes. Though sometimes they need help. Last weeks homework was, what is where your house was 100 years ago? It was me that googled and then dictated to him, our house was a chalk pit with possibly some industry in the area. Our house was built in the 1970s… around 1870 it was industrial.. and in 1940 became more suburban. He obviously wrote more then that.. in the time of the Anglo Saxons it was agricultural. My son is capable of asking Google and reading.. but actually understanding it all.. he is only 7.. so yes very hard to take that step back.

        1. Well of course you need to help him with that kind of stuff! I certainly would. I remember my parents having some involvement–or rather “engagement” with my schoolwork. The thing I need to remind myself of is not to correct his work AS IF it’s my own. A 4th grader isn’t going to get 100% of the spelling right. Nor will he know when to add a comma. (Come to think of it, i don’t always know either…) My point is, I think you’re doing just fine, watching him and taking cues on what he might need to help enrich his learning. That’s not helicoptering. That’s parenting.

  9. It’s good that you recognize that now!
    I was the opposite! Twenty years ago, I heard a lecture by a man who wrote a book. I can’t think of his name now. He explained the importance of kids experiencing failure and making their own decisions, with consequences, like grounding them if they come home late. They have to learn that not doing homework or studying for exams have consequences too.

    I also know a woman whose kids were always on the honor role. She used to look down on anyone whose kids didn’t do as well. One day, she let it slip that she was still writing their papers in college!!! I couldn’t believe it. It ends when they get a job and aren’t qualified. Or are fired because they constantly try to cheat their way to the top. Not good!

    1. I was managing a credit union branch years ago, and someone’s mom called me to tell me her son was sick and couldn’t come to work. And I was like, “Is he in the hospital?” And the truth was, he just didn’t want to call in–so his mom did. Ugh. That really shocked me.

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