I have a confession to make. I don’t check my kids homework. I don’t look at their assignments. I do not log into the various on-line places that the schools want me to check their grades. In a world where supposedly “every” parent is a helicopter parent, dooming their children to be clingy and dysfunctional, I sometimes feel like a bad parent. As much as we hear “don’t be a helicopter parent” from schools, colleges, and various media sources, it really feels like society and schools are pushing parents into the role of helicopter parenting. I am fighting back against it as hard as I can but I admit that sometimes I feel like a loser for nothing constantly logging on to see what my kids’ grades look like. That said, so far, I think my strategy is working out just fine for my kids. But sometimes I wonder if I am a secret loser of parent who is not being as “involved” as I should be.
When Riley was in elementary school, I used to check on her homework. I would go over her math answers and make sure they were correct. I tried to help her when she was struggling with something, but even though I was doing my best and my heart was in the right place, I think my “involvement” caused more harm than good (my poor first-born “test” child). I am now embarrassed when I think back at the time I spent standing over her shoulder correcting her. But, I was trying to help, be involved, be a good parent. That is not to say that I think parents should not help their kids when they are struggling. But, it really is OK if they make mistakes. We do not need to point all of these mistakes out to our kids.
When Riley moved on to Middle School and Peyton went to elementary school, I went back to work. My husband works very long hours and I was working a health care setting. I frequently worked swing shifts and was not there when Riley got home from school. I started relying on the on-line grade book to see how she was doing. This only served to increase the loss of control that I felt over what was happening in my kids’ lives. I was barely seeing them as it was, and I could not be there to help or monitor what was going on in their lives. This prompted me to ask questions based upon electronic information. “You have an assignment missing in this class? You went from an A to a D over night! Where is this assignment?” I was at turns exasperated and afraid and angry. Most of these conversations took place over the phone or in the brief, bleary-eyed few minutes that I had with my kids in the mornings. I felt our relationships slipping away. I realized that I thought I had some semblance of control over these people with whom I lived, but in reality, I cannot control what other people are doing. I can only control myself. I decided to back off. When cancer decided to visit my life, it really hit home that these two girls that I am raising will have to function on their own in life. I may not always be here for them. I need to make sure that they are equipped to face the ups and downs of life on their own. They need to believe in themselves.
Unfortunately, I feel that the expectation in today’s world is that parents will be available at all times and will be constantly monitoring their children. When Riley went to high school, she did not have a smart phone. Right off the bat, at back-to-school night, a teacher started talking about how they will use their smart phones in class. WHAT?! I was very upset. The district policy was “no phones” in class, but the teacher said essentially, “The kids use them anyway, so we might as well harness the technology for academic purposes.” While I understand that sentiment and realize that teachers are playing whack-a-mole with the ‘no phone’ policy, I felt that my own parenting was being undermined. Suddenly, I felt that I HAD to get my daughter a smart phone or she would be at a disadvantage in school. Shortly thereafter, we had an emergency where she had to miss a sports practice. Because I, myself, had no smart phone and I was not at home at my computer, I had no way to communicate to the coach. I bought myself a smart phone so that I could be a “good parent” and essentially be available 24/7. I resented feeling like I had to be “on call” at all times and like I had to purchase expensive technology that I did not believe was necessary for a 15-year-old or for myself (how quaint, I know, but that’s just my personal belief).
Now, as Riley prepares to graduate and Peyton is in middle school, things are very different. I am determined to be as supportive but as un-helicoptery as possible. I ask them every day, “What did you do at school today?” and “Do you have much homework?” I never check their homework unless they specifically ask me to read something that they have written (which is almost never, because apparently writing professionally affords me no gravitas at home!). Sometimes we talk specifically about what they did in classes, but only if it is something that they want to share. There are no inquisitions from me. They choose what they want to talk about. Sometimes we talk about friends or activities or what is going on in the news, the election cycle, or the universe. I want to hear about whatever interests them. I want to talk to my children about their lives. I want to learn more about who they are and what they care about. I am more interested in who they are as people than what their current grades are looking like. A funny thing happened as I backed off from the role of monitor and enforcer: our relationships improved and their own personalities started to develop and really show themselves. I started learning more about who my daughters are as people and about what they actually think about and believe in. They put enough pressure on themselves to succeed academically. They do not need me adding to the pressure that they face. They need me to help put those pressures into perspective.
But, here is my problem: I feel constant pressure from the academic world to not be the kind of parent I want to be. Every week, I get multiple email reminders to check this app and that app and the on-line grade book and the team and class web pages, etc. I do not blame the teachers one bit. They have pressure from everywhere to COMMUNICATE with parents. Parents demand to know what is going on every single day. But, does that make me a bad parent if I do not feel like i have to be constantly informed as to what is happening in the classroom? I trust the teachers to do their jobs. I trust my kids to do theirs. If my kids do not do their jobs, the natural consequence is that they will get poor grades. If a teacher is not doing his or her job, my kid will also suffer consequences, but no website or app is going to tell me anything important about what the teacher is doing. If my kid comes home and tells me, “We are talking about X in class and it is really interesting!”, then that is what I feel like I really need to know.
My kids are fortunate enough to be in a school district that consistently performs well by all metrics that I have available to me. I know that they will be prepared for college. I am well aware that we are “privileged” in this regard. As important as I believe parent-involvement is, I just do not think it is something that can forced. I consider myself to be a very involved parent in the ways that truly matter. Signing papers and looking at apps will not make me more involved in any meaningful way.
I want to make sure that my kids are hungry to learn and excited about education by the time they get to college, because ultimately that is what matters most. I want my kids to learn to monitor their own work loads on their own. I want them to be responsible for themselves. It is a process, of course, and I will provide support for them when and if they need it. But, I am not interested in looking over their shoulders every day to see what grade their received for behavior or on any one particular homework assignment. I laugh when I have to sign off on a homework calendar for my 18-year-old. (Really? How the hell do I know whether she did these assignments or not? “Hey Riley, did you do these assignments?” “Yes”. “Ok, I guess I can sign it then”). I expect that they will do their jobs and do them as well as they are able.
So, by bucking the system, I hope I am teaching my kids not that I do not care or am not involved. Rather, I hope they see that I am involved in the stuff that matters. My job is to be the support system and help shape and guide them as they grow up. I am actually more interested in guiding their ethical and moral behavior than I am in driving them to get good grades. Their desire to get good grades needs to be internally-motivated, because I sure as hell am not going to college with them.
So, to my teacher friends. I love you and respect you and would never want to do your job, because I know it is really, really difficult. I also trust that you are doing your job. This does not mean that we should not touch base on occasion, because I actually really like you and enjoy chatting with you. But please forgive me for not looking at the apps you set up. I ask my kids how they are doing and when they answer, I assume they are telling me the truth. If my kid is a problem, I want to know about it and I assure you that it will be dealt with, as I am in no way a pushover. But, my expectation as a parent is that they will do the right things in life. If they don’t, then they have to live with the consequences and learn those lessons. Trust me to be an involved parent but not one who is constantly looking over my daughters’ shoulders. They need to learn to be independent. I want them to go out into the world and feel strong and confident and competent. I want them to know that they have a mom who is interested in hearing what they want to share but it not interested in micromanaging their lives. I want them to learn the lessons that they will fail and fall down and make mistakes and that they will be able to brush themselves off and continue on with their lives…and that i will love them no less.