Some parents have always hovered more than others and struggled to trust the school to do its job. But the modern world makes it even harder for parents to step back when necessary, to let their children learn to fly rather than doing it for them.
With high stakes exams, an Internet-connected world that allows parents not just to know what their children are up to 24/7 but also to compare their success with that of other young people round the globe, and with the rise in competition for places at top universities, parents measure their child’s success against ultra-high benchmarks. Psychologically, they fear their child’s failure because they believe not only that it will make the child unhappy but also mark themselves as failures . In the goldfish bowl of this world, the stakes are high, for students, for schools and for parents.
Hence the helicopter parent, hovering protectively, alert for impending pain or failure, swooping before the fall, to prevent it. Examples are the parent who notices that her child hasn’t taken the PE kit or schoolbook and makes a special journey into school with it; the parent who realises that the child has forgotten to do homework and “helps” him do it; the parent who sees an error and corrects it; the parent who realises the night before a dressing-up day that the child has no costume because she didn’t hand in the letter, and sits up all night creating the best costume in the world.
I know I sound critical of parents and, of course, many don’t fall into these traps, but it’s hard not to. But in focusing solely on the present and the emotion of now, they lose sight of the bigger picture, the destination: independence, adulthood.
So, what can schools do? Inform parents of key evidence and truth; engage their trust by showing them that you understand and care; reassert your authority as expert educators.
These are my messages to parents:
- Great universities do not want knowledge robots; they want thinkers, questioners, creative minds. These attributes do not come from study and exams but from thinking, questioning, being At interviews for top universities and jobs, students must think “outside the box”. This develops over years of opportunity and encouragement.
- Let your child take courses that inspire, regardless of whether there’s an exam. You can’t know where something may lead. Excitement is the start of mastery.
- A child who never fails is a child who only tried what was easy. Failure is a test of character; determination is the proof of character. Teach your child to risk failure.
- Downgrade the status of failure. Unpick why it happened and set your child off to try again. And again.
- Nurture a growth mindset, not a fixed one. Growth mindset (“I can develop mastery, step by step, through good practice and effort”) is far more empowering than a fixed mindset (“I can’t do this because I don’t have the skills”). Praise effort, not inborn talent. “You did well because you worked so hard” rather than “You did well because you are lucky enough to have talent.”
- Wellbeing directly affects performance. There are simple ways to improve wellbeing, including diet, sleep, exercise and relaxation
- Daily relaxation improves wellbeing and performance. It is not a luxury, reserved for holidays or when exams are over.
- Ask your school whether they think your son/daughter needs more or less pressure. Trust the answer. A teenager who needs more pressure usually requires inspiration and help, not goading. A teenager who needs less, requires care and self-understanding.
- It is natural, normal and positive for teenagers to go through emotional and mental changes, as well as physical changes. Understand and support these, rather than ignoring, fighting or disparaging them.
- Sleep is essential to health and wellbeing, and for memory and learning. Learn how to help your teenager get around 9 hours a night
- Create a strong family technology policy, which all family members obey. Smartphones and other devices being tremendous benefits and problems but the problems can all be avoided. I recommend that all phones are put in a box or docking station at 9.30pm and not taken out till the morning.
- Evidence praises daydreaming. Do not fill every moment with mental or physical activity. Every genius has given value to thinking time, mental pottering and meandering.
- Encourage “active agency”: your teenagers’ growing ability to take control of wellbeing and success, to believe they have more control over their lives than they think. You want them ultimately to be strong and independent: this won’t happen if you always do everything for them.
Schools should encourage parents to take the long view. The child who stumbles today may be bruised and upset; but the child who picks himself up and walks forward bravely grows in confidence and ability. He can own his success. With eyes wide open he may find new, exciting paths, a journey of discovery and invention. The confident parent watches from behind, supporting, applauding, proud of the developing child and the independent adult he will one day be. We don’t know what else he will be: that’s not for us to know yet. That is like a story, ours to enjoy as it unfolds but not to write. It’s the story of a child’s journey to adulthood and how we showed him the way then set him on the road and let him go with optimism and trust and love.
Schools, help parents see this as the best way. If you can, you’ll have a true partnership and the task for everyone will be easier.