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By Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes
October 21, 2014
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Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes teaches and writes in Maine.

I know there are teachers and administrators and people in my community who consider me one of the helicoptering, overprotective parents who seem to be our society’s latest favorite punching bag. My husband jokes about a betting pool in the teachers’ lounge based on when I will make my first indignant appearance each year. But I’m no tiger mother. I don’t see parenting as a battle. I just insist on competency and civility from the world my children are in for now in the face of what seems like utter madness in the world at large.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine and I talked about the way we parent versus the way we grew up in the 70s, on opposite sides of the country, about the way our parenting is influenced by our own childhood experiences. We were both deeply affected by early exposure to violence in films and on television, in the news and in the communities we grew up in, and by disparities among the haves and the have-nots. We were both bullied as children and we both worried about nuclear war. We both also accepted all of this, at the time, as “part of growing up.” But neither of us sees any benefit in cultural trauma being a part of our children’s growing up.

I wonder if many of my fellow Gen-X parents experience adulthood as a recovery from childhood, and if our parenting choices reflect our desire to not have the harshness of the era our children are growing up in visited upon them. But we often hear that our approach is doing our kids, and society, untold harm and that we will be directly responsible for a generation of spineless, helpless wimps.

I’m surprised to find myself in the category of “overprotective,” because as a college professor, I’ve had the unpleasant experience of teaching some of the children of “helicopter parents”: students who can’t think for themselves or who balk at the demands of a college education. Even before my husband and I had children, I was determined that we would do whatever it took to raise them to be independent, capable people. I still am. Equipping them for self-sufficiency does not, in my mind, require exposure therapy to all that is wrong with the world. That will come soon enough.

Our instincts, when our children were ready for school, were to let them go, both literally and figuratively. We couldn’t afford the tuition at the local Montessori School, but I kept telling myself that I would send my children to public school even if we could have sent them to Montessori, because I believe in public education and I wanted our girls to be gently immersed in a gradual understanding of socio-economic differences.

Except for the reality that a large percentage of the children in our community do not get their basic needs met—a fact I tried to blunt by helping some of the neediest kids myself— all seemed relatively well. Until our eldest daughter started third grade. She and her teacher did not seem to be a good fit, but my husband and I, sensitive already to accusations that our generation coddles its children, didn’t intervene when it appeared that her teacher was being hard on her, singling her out. When she came home saying “My teacher doesn’t like me,” we tried to address it from her end, asking her to consider if the choices she was making were helpful or not. We learned from the teacher that our daughter protested when the posted classroom schedule was not followed; the teacher said that she needed to “roll with things” and “respect the teacher’s authority.” We didn’t entirely disagree, believing that learning to work with difficult people is a useful skill.

However, thinking we were being good parents by not rushing in and protecting our child so that she could learn some social survival skills, we overlooked the damage that was being done. In hindsight, I recalled that the teacher seemed nervous whenever I would come in to volunteer in the classroom; she would often ask me to photocopy material in the teachers’ lounge instead of letting me work directly with the children. I learned later that she told the principal that she thought I was “spying” on her. Our daughter was in fact being regularly, and badly, mistreated; the end result was that she came home one day, at eight years old, saying that she hated herself, that she was stupid. She said, sitting on the kitchen floor in tears, “I want to kill myself.” The teacher had made her tell the class that she got a C- on a math test. We pulled her out of the classroom (it was April by now) and put her into therapy, chastising ourselves for not intervening sooner, for ignoring the clear warning signs.

In fourth grade, she had an excellent teacher, but was physically assaulted three times by a child whose parents seemed to not just ignore, but value, his apparently sociopathic tendencies. The school did not have the resources to keep her safe and told us so. The next year, we homeschooled. “Homeschooled” is a code word for “helicoptered,” I know. But it was our only option.

The year she started middle school (we sent her back to public school as soon as she wanted to go), I didn’t waste time worrying about what anyone would think about me and my helicoptering tendencies. She came home upset about a movie on climate change that had graphics making the apocalypse seem real, and I fired off an email asking the teachers to better contextualize their material. She saw the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination because unsupervised students found it online and played it in the classroom, and I was on the phone asking why there wasn’t better classroom management. She was bullied by a classmate, and I was in the principal’s office at the end of the school day. While we are bombarded with accusations that we want to wrap our children in bubble wrap and tie them to mattresses, we are also bombarded with stories about children jumping to their deaths at cement factories and hanging themselves from stairwells, or being gunned down in their own classrooms.

So I hover over my children. I still remind my kids, now 10 and 12, to be careful when we get out of the car in a parking lot. I don’t let them stay up late and I don’t let them watch television at night, because of the violence in the network ads for other shows. I’ve just recently started letting them walk up our (safe, generally quiet, dead-end) road alone. But I don’t do their homework for them and I do insist on them picking up after themselves; I make them do extracurricular activities but I don’t overschedule them. I don’t let them eat much sugar, but I let them experience what it feels like so they know for themselves. I don’t tolerate as much fighting as I probably should because that is part of understanding unconditional love, and I let them see me drinking wine or even a martini at the end of the day.

My outrage over inappropriate material in the classrooms and bullying behavior from teachers and students isn’t just about the effects those things have on my children, but on all of those around them, especially those who don’t have actively involved parents. I care about my children being seen for who they are, and I care about other children being seen, period, especially the children who are left behind, in the wake of hyper-achieving, helicoptered children. I care about protecting all of our children, not just mine.

Helicopter parents may seem, at the outset, to be supremely selfish, a projection of ourselves on our children, directing rather than guiding. But consider the possibility that some of the parents being condemned for obnoxious hyper-parenting grew up too fast in a world that seemed terrifying. Perhaps we are determined to do what we can to change it for the better, not just for our children but for everyone’s. Whatever went wrong with our growing up, whatever scars or trauma we bear, something went right enough that we still believe we can make a difference. Teaching our children that they, too, have the ability to impact their surroundings, that they are not condemned to passivity because the world is hard—this may be the legacy of the helicopter parent after all.

Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes teaches and writes in Maine.

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