Back Off, Helicopter Mom!

I was sitting at my favorite coffee shop a few days ago and couldn’t help witness the parenting drama play out in front of me, the extraordinarily overt demonstration of what is popularly called “helicopter parenting”. Let me start with a photo I took (and then blurred out the faces for privacy) so you can see how things were set up:

helicopter mom invading son's tutoring session

On the left side you can see a tween boy working on a small dry erase board with his math tutor. To his right is his mom, while his big sister is engrossed in her tablet.

Mom, as you can see from the angle of her body, is paying close attention to the tutoring session, frequently engaging in conversation and asking questions to the tutor as the session proceeded. Not terrible by itself, but when she and the tutor started talking about the son’s deficiencies in math and his poor study habits as if he wasn’t even there, then when he got squirrelly and went to the bathroom, the mom complained to the tutor about how he just couldn’t pay attention? Not so okay. Then before he returned from the bathroom the tutor turned to the daughter and said “You were so much easier, boys are a pain!” to which mom laughed and agreed.

do not handicap your child by making their lives too easy - robert heinleinIt made my blood boil, actually. I almost said something, feeling like someone needed to defend the boy who was clearly so used to these sort of criticisms that he had been ignoring their comments and general rudeness towards him. But I didn’t, it’s not my family, so it’s not my place.

At various times each of my children has worked with tutors, and most recently A-, my 17yo, had a terrific math tutor who helped with her algebra schoolwork. Every time I left them to their own devices, trusting the tutor to keep things on track and trusting that if there was anything I needed to know about their progress, my daughter’s ability to focus, etc, I’d hear about it afterwards when appropriate. Worked great, just as a similar strategy of hiring tutors and trusting them to do the right thing has paid off with my younger children too.

I understand the mom to some extent, because I understand the desire of a parent to make the way easy for a child, that “helicopter” instinct. I mean, heck, this mom hired a tutor, so she gets points right there. But the disrespect involved in how things transpired? Not good at all and sure to have adverse consequences as the boy grows up into a young man who has become accustomed to female criticism and belittlement en masse. Do you think that’s going to cause him to grow into a man who respects the women in his life or resents them? Yeah, I’ll take resentment for $20.

Who I don’t really understand is the tutor. She appears to be someone who would have significant experience in her role as tutor and teacher, so why couldn’t she just tell mom to blow? A simple “please let Jon and I work by ourselves, I’ll catch you up on how it went when we’re done” would suffice. Perhaps she did and Mom refused, but that wasn’t the feeling I got from their dynamic. What I got instead was a tutor who disdained her student and wished she was working with someone else. Someone female. Yikes. Maybe it’s time for her to get a new job if that’s really the case, or just advertise as someone who works with girls, not boys.

Parenting is a tough job and there’s really no “right” way to do it. One parent’s best practice is another parent’s nightmare. Still, there’s lots of psychological data to show that our children have to encounter obstacles and learn to overcome them, that it’s not a successful path for us parents to plow the snow out of the way every morning, to stage-manage every conflict, to hover over them like guardian angels, making sure that every minute of every day is the best it can be. Adversity breeds strength and self-confidence and prepares you for the pragmatic realities of adult life.

What I saw with this tutoring session was the diametric opposite. Mom, you gotta back off, you really need to give your son some space to find his own way onto whatever path he’s going towards. And Mrs. Tutor? I think it might be time for you to just retire and be done. It’s okay. Your job as a tutor is to boost your student’s self-confidence and be their supporter even when their parents doubt their ability to succeed, and that’s not at all what I saw from your session.

5 comments on “Back Off, Helicopter Mom!

  1. Your observations are correct, but I must take objection to one comment:

    “Parenting is a tough job and there’s really no “right” way to do it.”

    I believe that there is a clear path to parenting.

    It is difficult to explain on paper. But, the essence is that it takes a true understanding of what is happening inside the child’s brain.

    If we, as adults, can respect the newborn as a diety, in the sense of purity, we all have a chance to change the world into a Gaia of love, growth, and positiveness.

  2. Yuck. My heart goes out to that poor kid. I don’t outright say things to strangers, but I’ve been known to give them the stink eye/raised eyebrow/pursed lip thing. I have seven boys and bristle when men and boys are put down simply for being male.

  3. Simply appalling on the part of the tutor and even more on the part of the mom. I suggest that helicopter mom take a jet plane and get out of the way…with a new tutor.

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