Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Land that chopper and let your kid crash.


If you're on social media, or have any contact with a child involved in sports or organized activities, you're familiar with the plethora of trophies and other awards thrust upon kiddos -- some of whom are not tall or strong enough to carry home their trophies themselves.  1st Parade, Perfect Attendance, Best Tapper, Super Goalie, Fastest Jumper, Most Cookies Sold... you get the idea.  

Adults, at some point, decided that kids need all sorts of structure and rewards in their lives to feel successful.

Adults decide a lot of things under the guise of "doing the best for kids."  A few years ago, our district opened a kindergarten center, due to the rising student population.  The administrator in charge at the time deemed that half day kindergarteners didn't require recess, and that the playground outside was off limits unless there was a curricular reason for students to be out there.  Teachers disagreed, and wrote lesson plans seeking the color of the week, counting stairs on the sliding board, and any other activity that would allow some time on the playground.

The next year, when those kiddos got to first grade, they were unable to work in small groups, or settle minor skirmishes with classmates.  They had never been given the opportunity to learn how to "play nice in the sandbox."

Somehow, childhood for many kids has become about bragging rights for mom and dad.  "My son is an honors student at Acme Middle School" bumper stickers are on the back of the minivans, little league players are scrutinized by parents judging not only their abilities, but the effectiveness of their coaches and referees.  Squeaky wheels get the grease, as they say, and the parents who demand schedule or policy changes in districts are often appeased earlier, rather than later, in the process.

But does this micromanagement of kids, from athletics, dance, and hobby practices, to intense scrutiny of homework, projects, and bedtimes, help?  A recent study entitled, "Kids of Helicopter Parents are Sputtering Out," says no.  In her article, (and in her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success),  Julie Lythcott Haims states:
 
"Recent studies suggests that kids with over-involved parents and rigidly structured childhoods suffer psychological blow back in college."

 Somehow, with all the scheduling, carpooling, and competition to be the best - or have the kid who is the best - the kids were left behind.  We're not talking academics here -- we're talking executive function skills.  Kids who had been superstars academically, primarily motivated by extrinsic rewards or fear of punishments for lack of performance, were paralyzed by their inabilities to succeed without clear cut direction from controlling parents.

In 2012, 21 year old Aubrey Ireland actually went so far as to secure a restraining order against her parents, as she was studying at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.  Her parents' suspicions and micromanagement of her daily activities had gotten so bad that they were actually watching her sleep in her dorm room, via Skype.   I can only imagine the devastation of those parents, legally barred from involvement in their only child's life, after a lifetime of constant scrutiny.

As I read through the Haims article, what resonated most deeply with me was this list of three ways that we might be over-parenting and causing psychological harm:

  1. When we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
  2. When we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves; and
  3. When our parenting behavior is motivated by our own egos.
 My youngest child is no longer a child at age 21, yet I felt a twinge of a raw nerve looking at #1 and #2.    As a classroom teacher, I am still guilty of these -- often not challenging students to do things that they are capable, or ALMOST capable of doing, for the sake of moving things along.  I've picked up the phone and paved the way for a student to have a conversation with a colleague about an assignment or grade, rather than encouraging the student to face her fears, and experience pride in confrontation and self-advocacy.    I used to review rubrics with classes, clearly emphasizing the specifics of an assignment so that every student knew the buzzwords necessary for success, rather than experiencing the process and taking pride in his or her work.

The disservice is owned by all of us.  Our bumper-sticker-worthy honors students are heading to college, facing issues of self-esteem, lack of social skills, and depression.  All because we were afraid to let them fail.

In several online discussions today, there was hope offered, by some of my favorite cohort experts.  Scaffolding is certainly the finest option -- for both students and parents -- as they wean themselves from co-dependency.  Two notable examples appear below:

"...By slowly removing supports, the students learn the idea and topics while facing minimal (but some) frustration and challenge. Helicopter parents have so much support in place for their kids the student never learns how to struggle or have the chance to learn from their mistakes..."

" I had a 5th-grade student whose mother would sit with him to help him with his homework....

At conferences, she complained about the homework load... \ I went through the steps for creating independence from (the book) Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades. She insisted they already do those things and left.

A couple weeks later, she sent an email saying she was only going to sit with him for the first hour, period, and then he was on his own, so I shouldn't expect his homework to be finished.

Another couple of weeks later (homework still got done), she came into the room to tell me how happy and relaxed they both were. He seemed happier in class, too."

There is hope.  It will take sweat, tears, and gnashing of teeth.

And the world will be a stronger place, with happier college students, who become happier adults.  Which is truly what we all want for our learners, right?