It was a first-grade teacher who shot down my helicopter. I am still grateful, especially that the lightning strike came so early in my son's school career. Sad to say, she did not cure me completely, but without that valuable lesson in letting my child find his way, without me hovering, ever ready to shimmy down a rescue rope, I'd be even more of an invasive parent than I am.
Elliott had been asked to draw a train as part of a project, the point of which neither of us now remembers. I do remember his drawing because my little genius was a whiz at drawing trains. He drew two train cars, coupled and loaded with logs -- I cooed over the excellence of his work. When he arrived home from school, however, there was no joy. His teacher had found his train incomplete, he said, because there was no engine. "She didn't ask me to draw an engine," he said. "She asked for a train. An engine is not a train." One could argue this point, but I found his reaction to his teacher's critique a funny, intriguing insight into his way of thinking. I also couldn't wait to lord it over her the next day. She was politely amused. Then she leveled her sight at my whirly-gigging ways. "Next time," she said, "you need to encourage him to discuss things like this with me. That's the way education works best." I can still hear the crash of my copter.
To those of you who have not lost sleep over a first-grade teacher's perception of your child -- or you -- this will seem absurd. To those of you who have forgotten the anxiety, humiliation and sometimes painful life lessons afforded the parents of school-age children, celebrate your survival. For those of you still in the trenches, know that you are not alone.
We all laughed at the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where the put-upon assistant is laboriously painting a science fair project for her boss's child, some of us in guilty self-recognition. How many times have I been up late, putting paper in the printer, passing glue sticks, reviewing spelling on pages about to be affixed to those nightmare-inducing three-fold project boards? More relevant, how many times in the preceding month had I told my procrastinating child that this was something I would not do for him?
The official party line is that we should allow the child to do whatever he can -- or will -- do toward completing the assignment on his own. But even knowing it is the best lesson ever in consequences, few of us will let our kids fail when we can save the day. Involvement of this sort is a slippery slope. It's a short hop from reviewing spelling to rewriting paragraphs to sending the child to bed while you "finish up."
Worse still are the impulses that make us insist that our child produce something of award-winning quality even if it means we have to do a little "tweaking." Not only did several of my friends confess to this, they also admitted developing attitude when "their" project was not a winner. That's where parental involvement gets a rocket boost off the edge of propriety's cliff -- to the detriment of all parties.
If you own up to having at one time or another been over-involved in your child's school work, know that your guilt is shared by many parents. In fact, there is so much shame associated with the topic that almost everyone I spoke to asked me not to use their names. And strictly speaking, while it isn't illegal to be a helicopter parent, the No. 1 most heinous incident of over-involvement on my list comes close.
The top 10 signs you have crossed into parental over-involvement
10You send long, detailed e-mails to your child's teacher weekly, if not daily.
Be accessible, don't be a stalker. Paschal High School English teacher Daniel Lancaster says that an e-mail simply offering your own contact information is a good way to start the year.
9You find yourself in the library making copies of poems by ee cummings, the better to illustrate a point about creative spelling to your child's teacher.
Yes, this was me. And to the credit of Elliott's first-grade teacher, I stopped myself.
8You find yourself taking over the science project while your child is peacefully sleeping.
Perhaps helicoptering runs in the family, as two cousins and a niece copped to this charge.
7You surf YouTube tutorials to learn how to do your child's math.
Learning enough math to tutor, good. Doing the homework yourself, bad.
6You develop attitude because you, that is to say ... your child, didn't win the science/history/creative-writing fair contest.
Come on, admit it, you knew it was wrong, but you were ticked.
5You attempt to negotiate a different grade on your child's behalf.
Bad, bad, all bad.
4You insist upon accompanying your child into the classroom to "get him started" on the day's work posted on the board.
Kari Kirkham admitted the moment of shame that broke this habit was when the second-grader who sat across from her son asked her, "You do know he's supposed to be doing his own work?"
3You ask a friend to translate your child's Spanish homework to him -- in a restaurant. ¡Qué lastima!
2You procure and clean a pronghorn antelope head for your second-grader.
Karee Galloway, who has recently moved out of Fort Worth (and one assumes now feels safe to reveal this), says she "once mailed a pronghorn head from Colorado to Oklahoma so my kid could clean it [a task she also took on] and trade it for fossils at the Nature Exchange program at the zoo."
OK, this really isn't interfering with school work, but it's the best helicopter mom story ever.
1You fabricate a doctor's appointment for your child so that you can deliver forgotten homework to a school that forbids this. Then you drive the kid around for 45 minutes for plausibility.
This was shared by a woman who said I could use her name -- however, she had a wineglass in her hand, so her judgment might have been impaired.