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There’s been a great deal written about “helicopter parents.” It seems that American moms and dads are more than a little bit (ahem) over-involved in their kids’ lives. Even college professors will tell you it’s a problem, with moms calling from three states away to debate a kid’s most recent essay grade.
So what are we supposed to do? Just push our kids out on the curb on the first day of kindergarten, shout “Good luck!” and speed away? No, of course not. There’s a reasonable middle from which we can protect and occasionally even advocate for our children without robbing them of the chance to learn to do so for themselves. Here are some examples of when to help and how.
There’s a reasonable middle from which we can protect and occasionally even advocate for our children without robbing them of the chance to learn to do so for themselves.
1. When your child is in danger—mentally or emotionally.This is a no-brainer. If there’s something going on that places your child at real risk, mentally or physically, you must speak up. The problem with modern helicopter parents, it seems, is that they have the idea that every hurt feeling, disappointment, or challenge is a real threat to their child’s self-esteem and emotional health. This is just not so. Learn to separate the real dangers from the ups and downs of everyday life, so that when you do speak up—people listen.
2. When you want to preserve their respect for authority. I loathe hearing parents complain about or criticize a teacher or coach in front of their child, only later to lament that “these kids today don’t respect authority figures.” Sometimes your child is too immature to separate the issue from the individual, and you need to quietly address the issue outside of their presence. For instance, when my 7th grader was docked a full letter grade on a major exam for failing to write his name on the test paper, I felt like the penalty was excessive for the mistake. Since my child already struggled to like this teacher, I didn’t want to give him a reason to focus more on her fairness than his own responsibility to get the details right on a test. So I inquired about the deduction privately and learned that there was a very good reason for her action. So we, as parents, got the information we needed without muddying the waters of respect between my son and his teacher.
3. When they’re not old/mature enough to articulate their position or needs.Your first grader can’t explain all the risks and requirements related to her peanut allergy. Your fifth grader may not be able to explain that his negative behavior is tied to family issues outside the classroom. All of these things are things your child’s teachers and coaches need and want to know. Teachers and others who work with your child can only help when they know what’s going on. By sharing helpful information, you enable them to become a more effective part of the team whose shared goal is helping your child do his best.
But you also need to realize when your child is able to speak for himself. At a meeting for junior high football parents, I was a little taken off guard when the coach announced that he would not, under any circumstance, discuss playing time with a parent. “I will, however,” he went on, “gladly discuss it at any time with your son.” Why? He explained that he felt like it was an important step in maturation for young men to learn to speak for themselves, to say “Coach, what do I have to do to get more playing time?” It allowed him to build a better, more open relationship with the kid and helped the kid become a man who owned his own successes, his own failures, and his own effort. Granted, there may be instances where a coach or teacher isn’t worthy of your full trust in this way. But consider giving them the benefit of the doubt, and allow your kid to mature as a communicator.
4. When Your Child is Struggling Socially.There are times we need to let our children figure things out on their own (see number 3 above), but there are other times we do need to swoop in to help them. Of course, we can do this with discretion. For example, if your child is having trouble making friends or keeping friends, meet with his teacher and find out what she sees in his social interactions. You can also arrange play dates for younger children and sleepovers for older children to help your child expand his social circle.