Updated: Jun 17, 2020
When our children are small, they need us at every twist and turn. From breast or bottle feeding to diaper changing, climbing the stairs, seeing them off to school, our efforts seem endless. For many of us this carries on until the end of elementary school. For me, the efforts continue. Let me tell you why.
I'm thinking back to our 2018 Halloween when my husband and I went trick or treating with our daughter, a group of her friends and several parents. Our daughter was 12 and certainly old enough to wander this particular neighborhood in Nashville with the host children who had grown up there. But, we wanted to trick or treat with her, watch the joy on the girl's faces, see thousands of kids who swarm the neighborhood and see the amazing Halloween decorations as this area knows how to do Halloween. At some point in the evening after we all returned for snacks and libations, the words "helicopter parents" were thrown about by parents who chose to not walk with us. Wow. This left me with a lot of questions. Am I a helicopter parent? What does that really even mean? Did my daughter's entry into middle school mean I should be hands off forever and ever? The answers to those questions are as follows:
2.) a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.
I was thinking about this as my 7th grade daughter came into the kitchen this morning and handed me her spelling words. It was a beautiful moment. My daughter, who learned English at the age of nearly four, who was a struggling reader until 3rd grade when she "got it" (we have a hard time getting her out a book now), who we mistakenly (by mistakenly, I mean we as parents made a horrific parenting mistake) moved to a Waldorf school in 4th grade where her spelling and writing became stunted and who has STRUGGLED to spell anything and was shamed by her teacher is now making A's on her spelling tests. It has taken 6 months of extra workbooks, exercises, and care from the teacher in her new school to cross this bridge to a WILLING and COMPETENT speller. You know what else it took? Hours and hours and hours of my working on homework with her since school started. Every. Single. Night.
While I can say that some of these nights were good, or at least had good moments, many were filled with some of the worst nights I have experienced as a mom. But, despite the pain, despite my desire to throw in the towel and go and turn on the television, I knew I could not. This is middle school. If we don't get it right or as close to right as we can get it, it will impact her the rest of her life. Many nights I thought of my own childhood and my parents. I'm a Gen X'er and like so many of my peers, we were essentially ignored as kids. The expectation was to to school, learn, do your homework, don't bother me while I have a mixed drink and watch my shows. It didn't mean they didn't love us. It just was the way it was. For a kid who struggled academically, it may not have been the best approach.
Walking into this school year, my daughter's new school had a Back to School Night, like so many other schools Having been told at my daughter's former school in 6th grade that our children needed to do everything on their own and come to the teacher if there was an issue (odd as they had zero training in organization, not taking, or homework), her new school gave me permission to intervene (as if I needed it). They emphasized that middle school is tough, our children need us and if they are struggling, we are all partners in seeing them on the road the success. And, while they acknowledged that some kids will just "get it", many more need gently guidance, encouragement and support to navigate everything during these years.
“They emphasized that middle school is tough, our children need us and if they are struggling, we are all partners in seeing them on the road the success. Partners. Not, they have to do it themselves. Partners. All of us. Parents, students, teachers.
I think this is a great approach to middle school. When I say middle school, I mean the time period, not only the place. There is a delicate balance between being a helicopter and being a supportive presence. I get it. We have a high schooler. We parented him in a very similar way to our parenting style as our daughter. It would not surprise me to hear that my parenting style during his middle school years were also teetering on helicopter. But, thanks to being fully present as much as possible we have a highly successful and fairly independent high schooler. He drives himself all over the city. He has been doing his own laundry since sophomore year. He manages his school work and for the most part, his college applications. He also has held down a part time job for the last 3 years. You get the idea.
With the enormous academic loads are kids carry, that looks very different from MY Gen X years, plus the social issues that are so similar yet so vastly different with the face of technology thrown in,
middle school is not the time to relinquish the torch. In fact, it is a time when the light needs to be brighter as we are beacons for our children as they navigate the harshness of the middle school years.
And, speaking of technology, what our children have access to looks very different from what my generation or even those behind me, had in front of them. When we abdicate our responsibility in these critical middle school years, especially if our children have phones or ipads connected to the internet, then we give permission for a larger world to teach them right or wrong or wrong on steroids in so many cases, what's normal or healthy, what sexuality looks like, what self-love does (or in a lot of cases does not) look like and what morality should be. We are lucky. We have surrounded ourselves with a group of parents and kids who largely approach these issues in the same way as our family.
Everyday, my daughter gets in the car and I can tell whether or not she had a good day. By the time we get home and have a snack, I am aware of her struggles and her triumphs. I know what homework she has and whether or not she passed her vocabulary test. I know that if I were abdicating my place as parent in favor of a "she is old enough to do it herself" parenting style, I wouldn't know what is going on with her. The same is still true with my son. He still shares his day. His wins and losses. The teachers he loves and hates and the best memes circulating via text among his friends. I am hoping this will carry into the college years as we face his imminent departure in less than a year.
Not to say there aren't bad days. Those days when I want to throw in the towel. Those days when my nearly grown high schooler is rude. Those days when I simply cannot one more minute. But, those are moments in time and we have to hold on to the wins. Wins for me look like a 13 year old girl who has lived in fear of spelling and lack of academic confidence for 3 years and is now bringing me her spelling on her own and is nailing it!
I will leave you with this. Your circumstances may not be that you can pick up and drop off each day and may leave with you with little time to engage in homework or monitoring of the phones or telling them to turn off the games - again. But, find those small things that allow you to be the arrow, the path for your children. Be present and be their go-to as they navigate middle school and beyond. And, do it from love. Someday you will be thankful!