Monday, March 05, 2007

Helicopter Parents and Technology

Normally, the Sunday Washington Post has maybe three or four stories that really get me and my wife going in terms of disucssion, sometimes the discussion is contentious (as it usually is when we talk politics), sometimes pleasantly disagreeable. But this week's Post had lots of good fodder for us. First up for us was this op-ed about Helicopter parents. We talked about the phenomenon in general, but also about some specifics in the article as well. As author Susan Coll writes:
As remarkable as the persistence of these sorts of stories is the absence of any consensus about where this is coming from and who is to blame. Posturing on the subject begins to sound a bit like the "mommy wars," with everyone rushing to defend their choices. But as with debates about whether mothers who work are somehow harming their kids, we glide right over the structural changes in society that have created a new culture of child-rearing, and some of the ways we respond are not entirely within our control. In other words, there may be something in the water supply that is turning us into nuts.(empahsis added)
Some of the parental activity, as was pointed out to me, is not new. Parents, at least most parents, were very involved in their kids lives. My parents missed a few soccer games as a kid, between my father's Navy deployments and my mother's shifts as a nurse, it was inevitable. But they were there, but I guess I just didn't think of them as hovering.

But Coll writes that perhaps technology is in the water, driving some obsessive habits.
If helicopter parenting is a disease, then perhaps technology can be viewed as a toxin, or at least an enabler. Nowadays, there are software programs that provide real-time information about how many students from your kid's senior class have applied to any given school, plotting them on a scattergram according to their scores and grades. It's a bit like studying the Racing Form, and just as addictive. If 56 students with the same general profile are applying to one school, it takes a lot of magical thinking to assume that your child can count on it for safety. With a graduating class of more than 450, it's hard for your child to be original in college choices, but with new technology, you, as a parent, can stay up all night, trying on his behalf.

Even more potentially corrosive is Edline -- a hovering tool extraordinaire now used by Montgomery County schools. We are, on the one hand, mocked for being overly involved parents, and then given a code to log onto a Web site to view every test, quiz and piece of graded homework. We can watch every recalibration of our child's grade-point average, then e-mail the teachers to complain. Gone are the days when a kid could lose a physics test, then make up for the bad grade on the next go-around with no harm done -- and no parent the wiser. Edline feels a bit like spying (although compared with the proposal to tag truants with ankle bracelets in Prince George's County, it's probably relatively benign).
What strikes me as odd is that the reliance on technology has replaced a basic parenting skill, that of being personally involved in your child's lives. Programs like Edline display a couple of troubling traits. First, as Coll pointed out, Edline is like spying and displays a lack of trust in your child. As a youngster, did I decieve my parents a little about grades? Yes, as did we all. However, my parents were involved enough (and knew my teachers well enough to call them by their first names) that such deceptions didn't last long. I grew to trust that my parents would generally take me at my word and they in turn trusted me to tell the truth, all of us knowing that eventually the real truth would come out and my version had better be pretty close to reality, otherwise, no soccer. Edline says to kids, it doesn't matter what you say, we are going to check now, rather than hold you accountable later. Proponents may claim real time corrections are possible with the technology, but real time corrections don't serve the child well because the correction doesn't carry enough consequences to be real. As a child, if my version and reality didn't jibe come report card time, I could say sayonara to anything I liked; soccer, hanging out with my friends, swimming, the beach, everything would be gone. Those were real consequences, not a week's grounding for a bad test.

Second, Edline and other technology tools give the adults in a child's life the veneer of being involved, without actually getting their hands dirty. In a age when teachers and other education officials are begging parents to be invovled, providing a tool like Edline will not help. On the face of it, the tool seems a little hypocritical. Edline says to parents, here is a way for you to be "involved" in your kids' education without acutally bothering the teachers. The technology also gives the teacher an out, permitting them to post the hard numbers on a childs' education performance without posting anything qualitative about that child. Since most parents whose kids are going well are unlikely to question the teacher, the teacher also gets a pass from being involved in that child's life and for those students stuggling academically, it is a statistically good bet that the parents may not care enought to pester the teacher. Everyone but the child gets a free pass.

Third, and finally, technology is a tool, it should not be a substitute. I have often argued that people often look at technology as an end rather than a means to an end. Edline and these other techno-parenting tools prove my point. They are the bells and whistles to parenting, not a substitute for solid, personal parenting. Furthermore, it turns parenting into data analysis. What are my kids trends in math, in science, in English? How are they doing with test taking skills? While these seem like important questions, and they are, they tend to supplant actually quizzing your children about their education by providing cold numbers.

Are Helicopter parents going away? No and quite frankly they probably shouldn't, although toning down the hovering might be useful. Will technological tools continue to help parents keep an eye on their kids? Yes, that again, such tools in and of themselves are not a bad thing. But these tools might be the root cause of some of the excessive and indeed narcissistic hovering. Think of it this weay, some education experts and child psychologists worry that our children spend too much time with technology, their computers, TV, cell phones, Ipods and the like. This in turn affects their ability to deal in the real world with real people. Shouldn't we also be concerned when parents spend too much time with technology as well?

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