Landing The Helicopters
I hear the whirr of the propellers even before I open the e-mail. It’s titled, “From Ryan’s Mom,” an ominous tip-off to the discerning teacher. Sure enough, the text of the letter confirms my suspicion: “I see on the online grade site that Ryan earned a D on his last test. This must be a mistake. Ryan cannot earn a D in your class. Please call...” With that, Ryan’s mom aims for the big X on the helipad and turns the blades onto “hover.” This is one serious Helicopter Parent.
It would be one thing if Ryan were a child of seven or eight. But Ryan is seventeen, a junior in high school who already has his driver’s license and his first job serving up lattes. Isn’t it time Mom and Dad let him figure some things out for himself? In their earnest attempts to protect Ryan from all pain, suffering, and hard labor, they have unwittingly trained him to be a paragon of passivity.
Our parents weren’t like this. When I was in high school, the only time your parents talked to a teacher was when the teacher called home after dinner to discuss a truly serious issue, like your failure in the class or an egregious case of insubordination. God help the kid whose parent got that call, because back then the teacher was always right. Parents rarely contacted school, partly because there were no direct lines or e-mail addresses for teachers, but also because if you got a D on a test, your parents figured you deserved it. If a teacher punished you for insubordination, your parents continued that punishment at home. The idea of involving an attorney was unimaginable.
The only time my father rescued me at school was when I got my teeth knocked out by a baseball bat in gym class during junior year, and the director of our school’s musical, in which I had been cast, threatened to use an understudy. My normally mild-mannered father came blazing into the theater like something out of a John Ford movie, demanding I go onstage. After all, I’d worked my tail off for eight weeks preparing this role, and my dad believed a couple of missing teeth shouldn’t prevent me from performing, even if my fat lip was a bit unsightly. This was no helicopter hovering; this was a case of the Masked Man on horseback, riding into town once to stake his claim and then riding off, never to be seen again.
Today’s Helicopter Parents are of my generation, so like me, they should have no trouble remembering how our parents loved us without coddling us. They promoted car-pooling instead of providing taxi service 24/7. They told us to talk to our teachers ourselves if we had a problem in a class. Parents came to one performance of our play or one of our games each week, then took us out for ice cream. That was somehow good enough. Today, parents of theater kids bring hot meals to rehearsals, come to every show with bouquets of roses, videotape it twice, wear a big button that says, “Future Star’s Dad” over Future Star’s picture, and, I’m not kidding, sometimes even have their starlets delivered to the school on opening night in a limousine. What’s most amazing to me as an observer of these outlandish rituals is that the kids are not embarrassed. Had my mother shown up at a rehearsal toting even a Tupperware of soup for me, I’d have disappeared into the green room in horror.
Sure, there have always been parents who don’t care enough about their kids, who rarely ask them what they’re learning in their classes, never attend a game or congratulate their children for a job well done. By the time these children get to high school, they may not bother to join any clubs or activities because nobody at home cares what they do. Admittedly this is worse than being too involved. But at least these kids will be able to manage on their own once they graduate -- they’ve learned that the only guaranteed rewards for a job well done are internal.
Ironically, hovering parents might be doing their kids just as much harm in the long run. More and more of my high schoolers are incapable of solving a simple problem or accepting responsibility for an action or choice. They are sent off to college with an intact umbilical cord, in the form of hourly cell phone calls or e-mails and no-max debit cards. Some college professors I know shake their heads as they tell me that they, too, have received calls and e-mails from parents questioning their adult children’s grades or making excuses for them. What’s to stop a parent like this from phoning his child’s boss in a few years to demand a raise? Indeed, urban legends have already emerged about parents accompanying their children to job interviews and bringing lunches to them at work.
At the end of the school day, I finally sit down to reply to Ryan’s Mother. “Buzz off!” I want to write. But of course I don’t. Rallying restraint, I write: “I hope you’ve asked Ryan to show you his test and had him explain why he received a D. And when Ryan comes to see me about his progress, I will be happy to share with him some strategies for becoming a more successful student.”
I hold out little hope that Ryan’s Mom will read between the lines of my message. Instead, I hear the ever-increasing hum of more hovering blades in the distance, and I shudder as I imagine a whole generation of coddled kids slouching toward minimum-wage jobs. When they turn 35 and are still hanging out in their old childhood bedrooms playing the latest games on their Nintendo 9000Z++ systems, then will the helicopters finally land?