It was Friday afternoon.
My classes were over, my students’ papers were graded, and the other teachers had left the building faster than Elvis. Just as I was shoving my laptop into my bag, I heard a knock on my office door. It was Dan’s mother, and she was not happy.
She wanted to know why I gave Dan a C+ on his English paper. As I reassured her that Dan could, and would, rewrite the essay, a familiar thought ran through my head: Where was Dan in all this?
When I was a teacher, few conversations were less productive than those I had with parents about an absent child’s behavior and performance. Yet those meetings were frustratingly common. Most students wanted to succeed and were capable of discussing this with me, if given the chance. The issue was not apathetic teenagers, but overactive parents who jumped in to fix their child’s problems without ever giving that child a chance to figure out his or her own solution.
I’m not a perfect parent, but as a former teacher, I find that imagining my 9-year-old son as one of my future students helps me know when to advocate for him, and when to let him puzzle things out. I see him for three or four hours a day; his teachers see him for twice that.
It isn’t enough for him to know what to do when I’m there. He has to be well-behaved and comfortable wherever he is. Helping him to be this way means mostly stepping back, rather than stepping in.
If school is his world, it’s my job to encourage him to make his world a place where he can be successful. This includes allowing him to be responsible for his homework. Right from the start, I stressed to my son that the most important thing was that he do his own work. The quality of what he turned in was based on what he knew how to do at the time.
This bothered his second grade teacher, who pulled me aside to ask if I “checked” my son’s homework thoroughly. I told her that I didn’t. “But he sometimes gets the answers wrong,and then he gets lower grades,” she noted, as if my purpose as a parent was to ensure that my son never made a mistake. I assured her that I understood the connection and I was comfortable with it.
By this year, in third grade, this problem solved itself.
My son worked hard to please his new teacher, so when he received his mid-year report card, he was upset that not every score was perfect. I suggested he talk to his teacher about what he could do to improve. He wasn’t thrilled with this idea, but I was insistent that if he was unhappy, he needed to approach her to find a solution.
Eventually, he agreed to the meeting. I emailed his teacher to set things up, but I didn’t attend. “What you say is up to you,” I told him. “But you should think about what you want to know, and how to nicely ask about it.” The next day, he returned home from school glowing with excitement.
“Mom, she says it’s going to be easy to improve my grades! Did you know that all I have to do is look over my answers to be sure they’re right?” He was much more diligent about what he submitted after that, and raised all his grades, because he understood why double-checking his own work was important.
That’s a concept he might have struggled to learn, if I had always checked his homework for him.
It’s not just through his work that he builds his own world, but also through the relationships he creates. A few months ago, he talked back to his one of his teachers. This was unusual for him. His teacher told me that he would need to stay in the next day at lunch and clean desks.
As we headed home, my son asked me if I was going to punish him, too. I assured him I was not. He looked relieved. “But,” I continued, “I wonder if just completing the punishment is all you can do?” I explained that while the punishment made up for his actions, sometimes we need to tell those we hurt that we’re more than just sorry.
“Why don’t you think about what you can do to show how much you appreciate her?” I suggested. “After all, she’s a big part of your world.”
The next day, his teacher took me aside. “Not only did he come in at lunch,” she said, “he came in for all his recesses and cleaned desks, as well. That really helped me out.” In the end, making bad behavior up to the person he disrespected mattered much more than making that behavior up to me.
His world was comfortable again, because he showed his teacher how much he valued her, and he helped to make his classroom a nicer place to work. That he thought up the solution himself (with a little age-appropriate prodding) made him feel even better about the results.
School is where our children live a large part of their lives. There, they form their deepest friendships, and receive instruction in both academics and social interactions. I know that overactive parents only want the best for their children. While helicopter parenting might seem to help in the moment, in the long term children are their best if they are allowed to solve their own problems, and encouraged to care about the place where they spend their day.
At the end of this school year, I attended my son’s music class recital. Never once did I have to ask him to practice his recorder: He genuinely wanted to learn how to play.
He performed his first solo – not perfectly, but well.
He was justifiably proud, because his success came from his dedication to his work, and that’s one of the most important lessons he can learn. Seeing his beaming face after he finished “Ode to Joy,” I was proud of him, too.
Three Books to Help Raise Independent, Caring Children:
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Gottman, John, Simon and Shuster, 1998. Dr. Gottman, who is famous for his “Love Lab” studies at the University of Washington, advises parents on building their child’s confidence and sense of stability through emotional coaching, allowing the child to recognize and act on their own emotions.
Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children, Skenazy, Lenore, Jossey-Bass, 2009. This conversational and very funny book reminds parents to turn off the news, stop scaring ourselves silly, and let our kids out into the world to gain confidence and independence.
Perfect Parenting & Other Myths, Main, Frank. CompCare, 1986. This is an older book, out of print but still widely available, and an absolute classic in my household, passed from relative to relative. Main covers all aspects of parenting with thoughtful, logical, common sense approaches to conflicts.
Jessica Minier Mabe was a high school and college English teacher for twelve years. She now works as a private tutor and writer. Her work is featured on her award-winning blog, where she publishes essays, movie reviews, stories and poems, as well as photographs and craft projects. She lives with her partner and their three children.