The Helicopter Effect

Would you call 999 if you saw a mouse in your college accommodation? Two US students did; and not only that, but they requested counseling for post traumatic stress disorder.

Peter Gray argues that similar events are becoming more common. He writes:

[Because of ‘helicopter parenting’ we] have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the opportunity to get into trouble and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention.

As teachers, I’m sure we all have tales of the ‘helicopter parents from hell’, but there seems to be something more going on than a few unrealistically demanding parents: there has been a veritable seismic shift in societal attitudes that has occurred over the course of a lifetime. Parents and families seem to be exerting more control over children’s lives. The default setting seems to have moved from the caring, loving but essentially “light touch” supervision of my childhood to what amounts to a species of neurotic control freakery.

My own free range childhood was similar to that described by Jerry Coyne in a thoughtful blog post commenting on Gray’s piece.

When I was a kid of 10 or so, I was allowed to walk to school on my own and, after school, ride my bike over to my friends’ houses, where we’d then take off in juvenile packs to explore our surroundings. There was no adult supervision save the order that we be home by dinner. That not only doesn’t happen any more, but parents who permit such roaming can (and have been) arrested.

And are schools and teachers contributing to this change?

I would say yes, some of the time.

One example is the question “Have you called home?” This is a very common one in my school and is frequently an entirely legitimate response to many issues. (It’s completely my own fault that it makes me smile because it reminds me of the Lewis Carroll line “And hast thou slain the jabberwock?”)

However, I do question its over-use with older students, particularly A-level students. In a perfect world, the conversation should be between the student and the teacher, not via the parent.

But shouldn’t we keep the parents informed, you ask? Well, yes, obviously. But not over-informed about each little tic and twitch.

And surely “I’ll tell on you to your Mum!” is a consequence that has the effect of tying the apron strings more tightly, rather than loosening them?

Let me emphasise that that I am not opposed to calling home per se, just that I think that we over use this consequence with older students.

Broadly speaking, I suppose that I am in favour of increasing the freedom of young people. Including, in the end, the freedom to fail.

You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.
— Lord Vetinari from Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal

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15 Comments

Filed under Education, Society

15 responses to “The Helicopter Effect

  1. Ijstock

    Had a case just this week. Part of the problem with precious, helpless children is definitely precious, helpless parents.

  2. Ijstock

    …let alone a (professional?) parent…

    • Ijstock

      Hmm…don’t know what’s up with my tablet here….and the incident onvolved specific parents. Let’s just say it revealed whole new levels of expectation heading down into the depth from what I would consider the minimum for a child of my own…

  3. Ijstock

    Sorry for multiple replies…

  4. Good post and I recognise the trend you’re talking about. Although I don’t think schools are the primary driver of this I think the regime of high stakes testing and accountability is a driver of it.

    Children’s attainment has become too important to leave to them, schools cannot let them fail. The consequence of this is that children learn that people in authority will tell them exactly what they need to do and bend over backwards to help them do it. This is a successful strategy for maximising exam results. For producing resourceful, independent citizens less so.

    • Ijstock

      And it is ultimately self-defeating. Not only is education NOT a test of the school, if pupils come out with results that in no way reflect their true abilitites (and weaknesses) then the whole thing becomes pointless.

      • I agree. I remember a line from “Yes, Minister”: “Are you a high-flyer, or merely a low-flyer held aloft by loud and frequent gusts of wind?” This isn’t meant to be elitist but only that I believe that results are primarily a reflection of the student rather than the teacher.

    • I agree that schools are not the primary driver of the trend. It seems to be a societal trend that schools accept with reluctance or enthusiasm depending on circumstances and convenience. I think you’re right that somehow exam results have become equated with good education, rather than merely an indicator.

  5. Requires Improvement

    Totally agree, even though I’ve been socialised to the extent that I automatically hear a gothic horror organ sting after the phrase “Let them fail”. We have lost something important here; making mistakes in a controlled safe space used to be part of what sixth formers did. Now it feels like any such problems have to be resolved in the same time as a sitcom episode.

    • Me too! Who knows, maybe the new two year course is the right decision…?

      • Ijstock

        I would say so. People have short memories – two years used to be the norm. It takes that long to turn a 16 year old into an 18 year old and trying to hurry it by adding extra tests along the way only stunted the process.

      • Requires Improvement

        The rational optimistic part of me hopes so – doing external exams at the end of year twelve always feels like a diversion just when things are getting interesting. My fear is that a) societal pressure and b) the demands of the spreadsheet monster will keep us trying to do the old magic, even when it doesn’t really apply.

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