After reading this article published in Time Magazine last month, I discovered there’s a name for what I’ve been doing. Turns out it’s called “slow parenting.” One can imagine all kinds of definitions of what “slow parenting” might imply, most of them unflattering. But as defined in Nancy Gibbs’ article, it’s the opposite of helicopter parenting: just letting kids be.
And I thought I was merely lazy.
In our circles, we hear a lot about helicopter parenting, but I can’t say it’s something I witness a great deal, even though it would seem we’d be squarely in the midst of the demographic most often charged with it: highly educated professional parents in academically competitive, high-income suburbs. Perhaps it’s more of an issue with high school aged kids, since the term “helicopter parenting” seems to be a favorite of college deans describing the parents who appear at registration to advise their children on what classes to take, or call professors directly to complain about grades.
My husband and I have a large cohort with kids in the same general age group as ours, but unlike the people in the article, we don’t know any parents who take a photo of their kids on the way out the door every morning in case they have to file a missing persons report later the same day, nor has my husband, who coaches boys’ baseball three seasons a year, ever had to contend with a parent instructing him on what position a particular child should be allowed to play or protected from playing. While it’s true that we know some kids with tutors, it’s just as common in our community for our public school to contact a parent and invite a child to attend an early-morning math tutorial than vice versa.
But sometimes I feel like we’re getting a mixed message. The media loves the term helicopter parenting and loves articles in which human resources executives describe parents who help their newly graduated children negotiate the salary at their first job, but at the same time, my kids come home with a somewhat unsettling number of assignments deemed “family homework.” Not every week – most of their regular homework can be done independently – but several times a year. There are some school projects that involve family discussion, such as the one the first graders do on their country of origin; children are instructed to spend time with their parents exploring their heritage. There are others that would be logistically impossible for kids to do without parental help, such as the one the third graders do in which they have to locate and describe various landmarks around town: there’s simply no way to do that one without a parent driving the child around or, at the very least, accompanying them by bicycle. It’s frustrating to me to be reading an article about the scourge of over-involved parents one day and then have my child come home with yet another “family homework” assignment the next.
On the other hand, it’s possible to develop a sense of judgment about levels of involvement. Tim’s fifth grade teacher sends a long e-mail home every week detailing what the kids’ special assignments are for the week and how we can help them. I skim those e-mails and then file them in a folder, figuring if Tim comes to me with questions about his homework I’ll have a resource to fall back on. But we’re three months into the school year and other than quizzing Tim on spelling words and multiplication facts occasionally, I have yet to help him with his homework. Is he falling behind the other fifth graders as a result? Not as far as I know, but I’ll find out next week when we get his first report card. It’s possible that I really should have been studying those e-mails and following through on their recommendations all along, but my guess is that they are more of a safeguard measure against those parents who complain they never know what their kids are supposed to be doing.
Maybe it’s partly because I’m self-employed and spend so much time pursuing my own assignments, but I’m really not that interested in my children’s homework. I check with them most evenings to be sure they’ve done it, and usually by the time I ask, they have, because they know it comes before other privileges like TV or computer games. I try to be helpful with the occasional project that requires significant extra research or materials. My parents had a hands-off attitude toward my work when I was in school, which was typical of that time, and in retrospect I feel like a little bit more guidance would have nipped some of my organizational problems in the bud: for example, asking me whether I’d checked the supply of typing paper so that I didn’t run out the night before a term paper was due wouldn’t have been the worst thing. On the other hand, I learned from the experience. It took me all the way through college to become really proficient at the more organizational, as opposed to academic, side of homework, but I eventually got there. And I tend to think my kids will too.