The ‘Helicopter Parent’
Meet Shani Weber. She’s an articulate mother of two and a former teacher with master’s degrees in early childhood development and special education. She’s the County Council PTA representative and room mother for both of her kids’ classes. “My involvement level is high,” she says. “And because of my educational background, I’m a teacher’s worst nightmare. I’m an Apache helicopter.”
When Weber’s son started kindergarten, she met with the principal and his teacher to let them know that she’d tested him with the appropriate developmental protocols and determined that he was gifted. She asked how the school accommodated exceptional kindergartners. “They acted as if I was exaggerating Alec’s abilities,” she says. “They encounter lots of parents who don’t see their kids in an accurate light, and they thought I was one of them.”
But Alec was advanced in reading—so advanced, in fact, that his resource-strapped teacher put him in a corner with a basket of books to read by himself. He was so advanced in math, he was placed alone in front of a computer with fourth-grade level math software while the other students spent time interacting with each other and their teacher.
“I know teachers are overwhelmed with No Child Left Behind requirements,” Weber says, “but that’s my son sitting all by himself with a basket of books!”
Weber is a reasonable woman who was willing to work with her son’s teachers to find solutions. But there are far more aggressive helicopter parents who threaten, intimidate, and bully educators into meeting their demands. In Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads , author Rosalind Wiseman writes about a mother of a 5-year-old complaining to a teacher about giving her son an “E” for excellent rather than an “O” for outstanding. “Our family doesn’t do average,” the mother insisted.
In her book, Wiseman goes into the minds of helicopter parents. For example, when a parent says “I’m my child’s best advocate—I’m acting in the best interests of my child,” Wiseman deciphers the true meaning: “I’m the only person who can be trusted to do right by my child. I have to keep close tabs on everyone else to be sure my child isn’t undermined, unfairly treated, or denied resources or opportunities that are rightly his.”
Wiseman explains that the best way to handle this type of parent, and all parents, is to treat them as allies and experts on their children.
Just as a doctor expects parents to come into the examining room with their children to explain symptoms and answer questions, so should a teacher rely on the expertise and knowledge a parent has to offer. Even a parent who exaggerates is still the expert.
“Deal with the parents like you deal with your students,” says Wiseman. “You give your students the right to argue with you, to challenge you, to be engaged in a process with you, but in a certain structure and with limitations. You need to facilitate that with parents.”
The overly involved helicopter parent can be aggressive, but put a group of them together and re-channel their energy—into study groups for their gifted children, for example—and you’ve provided a positive outlet for their Type A traits.
Some of the most heavily involved parents are driven and successful in their fields. Take advantage of that drive and tap into their expertise, Beyond the Bake Sale co-author Anne Henderson says. Invite a parent with a legal career to talk to classes about the Constitution and government. “It signals that they have something to contribute, that they’re experts, too, and not just on their children,” she says.
In her book, Henderson explains how power-sharing can defuse the ticking time bomb of an angry, hovering parent. “The starting point for teachers and administrators is to see families as partners and not simply as clients or guests,” she writes. “Every parent wants to feel they are a partner with you in helping their child succeed.”
“If I’m seen as an adversary taking up time, we won’t be partners,” Weber says. “But as a parent, I play an integral role. All parents do.”