Saturday, August 25, 2012

Coming in for a landing

You know what's great about having been a parent for over 17 years? Besides having made it through the years of diapers, potty training, tantrums (for the most part) and 3am feedings? No, what's really great is that after nearly two decades of parenting you finally learn that there is no such thing as a parenting "expert".

Don't get me wrong, I was as much a sucker for those shelves and shelves of Parenting books as the next desperate mom with a screaming toddler wrapped around her leg like a chimpanzee. And, without a doubt, there were occasionally bits of information or words of wisdom that gave me some clarity and something new to stick in my bag of tricks. But let's face it, most of us come into this parenting game with our own style and personality that even the best of intentions will fail to undo.

So, while I openly admit that I have devoured dozens upon dozens of parenting books during my years as a new mom, I am finding it nothing short of liberating to finally be in a place where I no longer seek the advice and opinions of self-proclaimed experts who have never even met my particular child. Because therein lies the problem, there simply cannot be a one-size-fits-all method of parenting.

I have never been a fan of labels and perhaps nowhere do I find labeling to be more problematic than in the arena of parenting and childrearing.

Are you a permissive parent?

An authoritarian parent?

An authoritative parent? (which sounds almost the same as being an authoritarian parent but God help you if you mix up the two in the middle of a parenting seminar)

Or, the label most in vogue right now, are you a helicopter parent?

I dare you to use that term in my presence. Really, I dare you. But if you do then you might want to cover your ears because I will commence a screaming fit so ear-splitting that it will send you running for your dog-eared copy of Your Spirited Child to find the section on "how to stop a grown adult from having a tantrum".

This is what I hate (I know, hate is a strong word...) But what I hate is when experts not only create labels, but they create negative labels, with no agreed upon uniform definition, designed to make the "expert parents" feel superior. Because as near as I can tell, a "helicopter parent" can be anything from...

...a mom who runs back into the house to grab her Kindergartner's lunch box off the counter, even though she reminded him once to put it into his backpack. a dad who threatens to sue the school because his daughter is failing PE after having skipped class 10 times over the course of the semester.

Are these really the same thing??

And aren't we ignoring the reality that sometimes the unique needs of our individual children require a wide range of perfectly acceptable parenting responses?

I have two sons.

My boys were born to the same parents and raised in the same household. Both of them had the advantage of a healthy birth and no developmental delays or challenges. They are both fortunate to have strong, capable bodies and have experienced no serious injury or illness in their lives thus far.
And yet for all of the ways they have both been born into good fortune and privilege, one struggled academically during his early years of school, and the other sailed through without even the slightest bump in the road.

The advice you hear these days is all about how children need to feel accountable for their own work.  Parents should leave them to do their own work and allow them to fail when necessary. Providing a child too much assistance or support will only enable them and they will eventually end up unable to perform even the smallest task for themselves.  In short, if you help your kid with his homework you are on a direct path to having him live in your basement until he's 50.

But how does that theory play out with the two boys mentioned above?  Certainly the boy for whom school already comes easily will have no trouble being told to "work it out for himself" or "it's your schoolwork, not mine." But what about the boy who already goes to school and feels like he's staring at a brick wall that he's being asked to climb with no rope in sight? How will he discover he really is capable of learning new and challenging things if someone isn't there to break it down into more manageable steps, while providing him a shoulder to stand on, until he can climb that wall on his own?

I once attempted to have a candid conversation with an educator at my son's school.  She worked in the Learning Resource classroom and I was confiding in her how difficult it was for my son to complete his homework each evening without considerable support.  Not necessarily because the material was too difficult but the sheer quantity of work was enough to render him helpless.

She shrugged and said, "Well, you know, this is probably a good age for you to just let go.  He really needs to sink or swim." (I could almost see the accusing words "helicopter parent" etched on her forehead).

I let her words penetrate for a moment, took a deep breath and said, "Honestly, I'm pretty sure that if I tell my son he can either sink or swim he will just throw his hands up and drown."

Again, she just shrugged.

My son was 10 at the time.

That's the best advice we have for parents with kids who don't naturally excel academically? At the age of 10 they are either college-bound or they are all washed up?

Fortunately, I have a Masters in Teaching myself so I'm not as easily cowed by the opinions of other educators. I am well aware that even among teachers there are vastly different thoughts on how children learn. So, I learned to ignore the "experts" and went with my gut.

My gut told me that my son was one of the many boys for whom time and maturity would work wonders. But in the meantime, what we couldn't do was to allow him to sink into the abyss of "I'm just not good at school..." or "I'm just stupid..." or "It's all too hard..." We continued to be his cheerleaders, his tutors, his coaches and his biggest fans all while looking for ways each year we could step back more and more and let him take the lead.

This year both of my boys will be in high school.  One will be a senior and one will be a freshman. I can't tell you how much joy I feel in thinking about this year ahead in which my sons will spend one year together in the same high school. They had just better get over their complaints right now because there will be a first day of school picture of the two of them.

It also gives me great joy and pride to say that I can look forward to this year and know that both of my sons will be more than capable of handling their own schoolwork, papers, tests and projects. I'm here for proofreading or to quiz them on vocabulary if needed, but otherwise, I know they have got it covered. And, even though there might have been a few hairy moments along the way when I questioned my own instincts, I really always saw this day coming.

Helicopter parents, unite! As long as you are slowly working toward that day when you can bring it in for a landing and shut down the propellors, there is nothing wrong with a little hovering now and then.

Take it from this "expert". Because...really... aren't we all?


  1. Hallelujah and amen. We mad the mistake of taking the Growing Kids God's Way course when Reagan was little. It took years to undo the number that did on my parenting. No one can give me a specific formula for raising my kids for exactly the reasons you stated. The combinations of personalities/circumstances/resources is infinite.

    Thanks for taking a stand!

  2. Oh Lori, how I wish I had been lucky enough to have you for a parent. I was like your son who struggles. I did drown at an early age. Teachers, my parents and older sister convinced me I was pretty useless (I just needed glasses; I was nearly blind!) After I left home, I matured and self-educated. Though I know I am not dumb, I feel that way and that sick feeling of not being on the "same page" haunts me at times. Your son will hopefully grow, and catch up, and someday I hope he will FEEL really smart, thanks to your gut... patience and love.