In this series on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, we’re searching for the truth behind the hype. In the first post, we explored what helicopter parenting is and what the causes are. In the second post we analyzed research on the effects of over-parenting on college students and in the third post we looked at some other evidence suggesting negative effects. In this post, we’ll see how schools are co-culpits when it comes to coddling students.
Colleges are at Fault too
It’s not just parents who are blamed for college grads who lack essential life skills to succeed: colleges get their fair share of criticism as well. An article in the Washington Post termed colleges ‘in loco parentis’—stand-in parents, and that’s an apt term.
One important aspect is that they provide students with almost fail-proof courses. Here’s an interesting finding for instance: The A is the most common grade given out on college campuses nationwide, accounting for 43 percent of all grades. Just as a comparison: in 1988, the A represented less than one-third of all grades.(1)
Then there’s the ‘war on reason’, I wrote about in a previous post. Colleges are becoming more and more politically correct, in the sense that they tend to limit students’ exposure to ideas they may not agree with. All that matters, is teaching to the test, so students can ace the test and that’s it. This is a trend that starts in middle school and high school by the way, but it’s especially visible in colleges.
Where colleges were once the breeding ground of debating skills, developed by being exposed to opposing views, they have become safe even in their teachings. President Obama made comments about this trend as well:
“I’ve heard of some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it had language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either — that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” (2)
Another big change compared to years ago, is that students hardly figure out their own curriculum and courses anymore. There’s intelligent software for that, which uses algorithms to determine which courses would be a logical next step for students. The problem is that because of these recommendations, students aren’t likely to experiment anymore, going off the beaten track, or try courses that they could fail at.
In short: they’re in a practically fail-proof environment. The problem is that this risk-free bubble doesn’t prepare students for the ‘real life’ a working life at all. Once they’re out in the world, all of a sudden they are expected to gather their own data, make their own decisions, and take risks. That’s why many businesses complain that college fails at delivering students who can succeed in the real world.
What About Schools?
Now that we’ve seen that colleges do their fair share of coddling students, it makes us wonder about primary and secondary schools. Do we see the same trends here?
Well, teaching to the test is certainly a well-known phenomenon in the whole educational system. With the over-value on testing (especially now that schools and teachers may even be rewarded or punished, depending on test scores), schools have become more and more focused on making sure students do well on tests. There’s a high focus on math and spelling, with less room for exploration and definitely less time for play.
Another trend is the over-protectiveness towards students—though there’s a big ambivalence here. On one hand, schools are limiting any and all ‘rough play’. in my son’s school, even playing tag is forbidden out of fear students will get hurt. Many schools have removed entire playgrounds, or have replaced them with ‘safer’ play structures. The question is how much overprotectiveness plays a role here and how much is caused by liability—which incidentally may also be a result of over-protective parents who sue anyone even coming close to their kid. But on the other hand, football is known to be a sport causing dangerous and sometimes fatal incidents to high schoolers and this is still being played.
Another element that we haven’t really discussed yet, is the system of ‘attendance rewards’. Instead of rewarding the winners of a sports competition for instance, all players get a medal for attendance. That may seem nice and on the surface it seems to send a message that it’s not about winning. But the effect is that kids don’t experience losing and that they expect to be rewarded for merely showing up, instead of for performing well. This is definitely a culture schools are promoting.
An anecdote I came across tells how after one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach. (3) This shows just how much parents want to protect their kids from losing.
Many elementary and middle schools have abandoned the ‘F’ grade for instance. When students completely fail a test, something is done to make sure they make up for it. In itself a noble goal of course, but once again students are not confronted with the results of their behavior. One school district in California recently went even further and completely revised their grading system: students who do absolutely nothing still get a C. (4)
The Role of Technology
Technology plays an important role in this helicoptering of course. It not only enables parents to be in constant communication with their kids through texting and messages, but is also enables them to know where their kids are at all times.
More than that, technology has enables both parents and schools/colleges to track students’ progress. It used to be that you had to wait for report cards to see how your kid was doing—now you simply log onto the parent portal to see what they’ve been up to that day. I can even track what my son ate for lunch in his elementary school by checking his cafeteria account.
The tracking systems used to suggest courses to college students are another example of technology enabling over-parenting. Technology is not to blame obviously—but it plays in important role in enabling over-controlling behavior.
Chicken or Egg
OK, so colleges and schools are showing some of the same helicopter parenting symptoms as parents are. This begs the question:what came first? Is it possible that schools have developed these measures because of parents complaining? There certainly have been some crazy law suits against schools and colleges won by parents over issues like being offended, being denied access to something, being given a certain grade or performance rating, etc.
When schools know they’re liable in court, they will develop policies to make sure they stay within strict boundaries. Even if that means coddling students as well.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one! We have one last post coming up, in which we discuss the implications of helicopter parenting for doing youth ministry.