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A certain amount of hovering is understandable when it comes to young children, but many educators are concerned when it persists through middle school and high school. Some teachers talk of "Stealth Fighter Parents," who no longer hover constantly but can be counted on for a surgical strike just when the high school musical is being cast or the starting lineup chosen. And senior year is the witching hour: "I think for a lot of parents, college admissions is like their grade report on how they did as a parent," observes Madeleine Rhyneer, dean of students at Willamette University in Oregon. Many colleges have had to invent a "director of parent programs" to run regional groups so moms and dads can meet fellow college parents or attend special classes where they can learn all the school cheers. The Ithaca College website offers a checklist of advice: "Visit (but not too often)"; "Communicate (but not too often)"; "Don't worry (too much)"; "Expect change"; "Trust them."
Teresa Meyer, a former PTA president at Hickman High in Columbia, Mo., has just sent the youngest of her three daughters to college. "They made it very clear: You are not invited to the registration part where they're requesting classes. That's their job." She's come to appreciate the please-back-off vibe she's encountered. "I hope that we're getting away from the helicopter parenting," Meyer says. "Our philosophy is 'Give 'em the morals, give 'em the right start, but you've got to let them go.' They deserve to live their own lives."
What You Can Do
Among the most powerful weapons in the war against the helicopter brigade is the explosion of websites where parents can confide, confess and affirm their sense that lowering expectations is not the same as letting your children down. So you gave up trying to keep your 2-year-old from eating the dog's food? You banged your son's head on the doorway while giving him a piggyback ride? Your daughter hates school and is so scared of failure she won't even try to ride a bike? "I just want to throw in the towel and give up on her," one mom posts on Truuconfessions.com. "This is NOT what I thought I was signing up for." Honestbaby.com sells baby T-shirts that say "I'll walk when I'm good and ready." Given how many books and websites drove a generation of parents mad with anxiety, a certain balance is restored to the universe when it becomes conventional for people to brag about what bad parents they are.
The revolutionary leaders are careful about offering too much advice. Parents have gotten plenty of that, and one of the goals of this new movement is to give parents permission to disagree or at least follow different roads. "People feel there's somehow a secret formula for parenting, and if we just read enough books and spend enough money and drive ourselves hard enough, we'll find it, and all will be O.K.," Honoré observes. "Can you think of anything more sinister, since every child is so different, every family is different? Parents need to block out the sound and fury from the media and other parents, find that formula that fits your family best."
Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting, teaches seminars on how to peel back the layers of cultural pressure that weigh down families. He and his coaches will even go into your home, weed out your kids' stuff, sort out their schedule, turn off the screens and help your family find space you didn't know you had, like a master closet reorganizer for the soul. But any parent can do it just as well. "We need to quit bombarding them with choices way before their ability to handle them," Payne says. The average child has 150 toys. "When you cut the toys and clothes back ... the kids really like it." He aims for a cut of roughly 75%: he tosses out the broken toys and gives away the outgrown ones and the busy, noisy, blinking ones that do the playing for you. Pare down to the classics that leave the most to the child's imagination and create a kind of toy library kids can visit and swap from. Then build breaks of calm into their schedule so they can actually enjoy the toys.
Finally, there is the gift of humility, which parents need to offer one another. We can fuss and fret and shuttle and shelter, but in the end, what we do may not matter as much as we think. Freakonomics authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt analyzed a Department of Education study tracking the progress of kids through fifth grade and found that things like how much parents read to their kids, how much TV kids watch and whether Mom works make little difference. "Frequent museum visits would seem to be no more productive than trips to the grocery store," they argued in USA Today. "By the time most parents pick up a book on parenting technique, it's too late. Many of the things that matter most were decided long ago what kind of education a parent got, what kind of spouse he wound up with and how long they waited to have children."
If you embrace this rather humbling reality, it will be easier to follow the advice D.H. Lawrence offered back in 1918: "How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning."
Of course, that was easy for him to say. He had no kids.
With reporting by Karen Ball / Kansas City, Mo.; Alexandra Silver / New York City; and Elizabeth Dias and Sophia Yan / Washington