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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

When Hovering
Isnt Helping

Nowhere in my previous column (Coping With Parent (Over) Involvement) concerning the need for students -- at all stages of their development -- to embrace appropriate independence and autonomy, did I suggest that parents should be barred from interacting with their children or with their children's various instructors. I did not suggest that our educational system institute organizations or camps whereby tykes as young as, say, 21, are disengaged financially, intellectually, or in terms of text-messaging, from their parental units.

But select readers -- parents who took umbrage at my observation that teachers are sometimes treated with less respect than the average babysitter while not being given unlimited refrigerator and cable privileges -- started to zoom in and buzz me after that column appeared. Clearly they felt that I, personally, was going to inspire teachers around the country to rise up and refuse to cater to the whims of parents who themselves don't know how to set boundaries.

All I can say is: I wish! I sort of got the feeling that they wanted me to apologize. All I felt was a need to redouble my efforts. Three out of four of those who wrote demanded to know if I had children myself; I'm surprised they didn't ask for my weight and dress size.

By the way, that's fine -- 147, 12/14 depending on the cut.

And yes, I've raised two kids.

I get it. True, my two stepsons are now at that absolutely adorable stage when they've graduated from law school. It's a much cuter stage, believe me, than the refusing-to-wash-their-hair stage or those years during which any phone call after 10 p.m. that began with "Umm, I've got something to tell you..." made my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth so that it was nearly impossible to speak. (Which was probably all for the best, when you come to think about it.)

But I'm eager to hear from readers, even from ones with whom I might disagree. And who want to have my citizenship revoked. But I digress.

Here's a version of what I wrote back to those disgruntled parents; it might prove handy for my colleagues who face this sort of questioning on a more regular basis. One parent wrote that I will be proud one day if my child is a nerdy adult and will have the opportunity to become the next Bill Gates.

I, too, hope your son is the next Bill Gates -- we're all on the same side in terms of wanting the best for the next generation. What I focused on in my last column was my fear concerning parents who cannot make and keep boundaries between their child's newly emerging public lives and their already-established and firmly grounded family lives. I'm afraid overbearing parents give their children a handicap rather than a boost. I believe, along with Hara Estroff Marano, whose brilliant book I suggest you read, that autonomy is a great gift we give our children. In A Nation of Wimps, she writes: "The most valuable part of education does come at home, but early...not in anything spectacular, but in the way everyday life is lived. And not in any one thing, but in parents talking to kids and letting kids speak, reading to kids, and in families sitting around the dinner table having interesting conversations, and in kids being exposed to extended family and friends, that is, not bound by the (necessarily) limited views of their own parents."

This, by the way, does not mean parents should not be deeply and fiercely involved in the school system: every educational professional deserving that title would agree that the time and energy spent on behalf of the school by parents is essential for a first-rate education -- so long as they are working to make a difference in the classrooms and lives ofall children who can benefit, and not selfishly looking after only their own in a way that eventually hobbles and weakens those very children we all hope will lead this world into a brilliant future.

Finally, I'd like to suggest that there's a difference between a nerd and a wimp. I adore nerds, and, as you can see from the fact that I answer my e-mail before breakfast, I pretty much place myself in that category. But I'm also a poor kid from Brooklyn whose parents supported and believed in education -- without having any themselves -- and who saw strength in the fact that their daughter had the appetite and the fearlessness to get everything she could from every class she attended. Don't you think that this is where good schools come in, where great teaching becomes crucial and where the interests -- professional and personal -- of parents, teachers and students can really converge? As a teacher, I refuse to believe we need to lift the next generation of leaders up on our palms so that they don't have to exert themselves. A little exertion goes a long way. Why not believe your child can rise to the occasion? Why not give him a chance?

I recently asked one young assistant principal how she handled it when parents came in to discuss their child's progress. Discussions are great, she said, but the interventions get to me. When a parent comes only to complain that his or her child isn't being treated as the unique gift to the universe, then I'm frustrated. It's fine for the rest of the class, for example, to have to raise their hands in order to ask a question, but young Werther should be allowed to express himself freely because he's so creative, and they don't want his expressiveness thwarted, then that becomes a more serious issue. Sometimes it's as if the parents come to me as an administrator the way you go to the head of customer service if you are unhappy with the way somebody on the sales floor is treating you. They assume that teachers, especially young female teachers, can and should be bossed around. I don't encourage bullying in my school, whether it's done by the students or their parents.

Schools used to be a way for kids to transition from private to public life, to emerge from the cocoon of the family into a small, safe, but slightly less protected world. School, in a way, was the equivalent of taking off the training wheels from a bike, or moving from the car seat to a seatbelt. You're still secure, you've still got somebody watching over you, somebody to pick you up when you fall, and someone in the drivers seat who's going to act responsibly and conscientiously. It's a new stage; it's an indication of progress.

And to keep going with the car analogy (since we're on a roll), just as invasive backseat drivers can sometimes interfere with the smooth progress of the journey, or at the very least make the journey tense, unsatisfying, and fraught with the expectation of a crisis around every corner, so can the overbearing parent transform the school experience into a calamitous, anxious, and contentious one.

Teachers! Take back the wheel! And remember to hold steady towards a "No Helicopter Zone."


Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
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