“What do they do in there all that time?”
It was a question I was surprised to hear a first-time mom asking about preschool, which our kids attend for at most three hours a day. I was tempted to say, but didn’t: This is not exactly The Secret Lives of Toddlers—they color, they play outside, they sing songs, and they eat snacks. And when they’re all done, most of them seem pretty happy.
But that is not enough. In response to the demands of many of the parents, I suspect, the school has started sending out a daily newsletter with an explanation of what the kids did each day, along with snippets of their conversations with each other and links to dozens of photos each week. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that this is beginning to look more like a surveillance state than nursery school.
I have always been lucky that my three children are eager to tell me what they did at school each day. It’s not always a full report, and heaven knows it’s not always accurate, but it’s something. If you’re the parent of a child who does not want to share, I sympathize. Maybe these newsletters and photos are a way of starting conversations with your child. (“Did someone bring apples for a snack today? Did you talk about leaves falling?”) But I’m not sure that pictures and transcripts of the day’s events are best for the kids.
Especially not for the older kids. Lots of parents complain about the flurry of notes home from school each day. But now teachers are regularly tasked with taking pictures and videos of the kids. We get a “Flashback Friday” video each week. This is the kind of thing that used to be compiled at the end of the year, but now that technology makes it so easy, someone can set pictures to music every week. Summer camps do the same thing. And overnight camps are sometimes worse. Because kids are not allowed to have devices at many of these places, parents wait anxiously by their computers for some pictures or videos of their kids to be posted each day.
It’s nice to see pictures of our kids having fun even when we’re not there. And it’s certainly better than one alternative—parents who seem to find excuses to actually be at school all the time. But all of this hovering is taking its toll. First, kids seem to be getting used to the idea that their parents are always watching them. Or even that their teachers are always watching them—with a camera. It’s hard for any of us to work or play in peace when there is always a chance of documentation.
But obviously this is also a sign of the helicoptering problem. A recent article at Slate summed up some of the initial research about this parenting method:
In 2010, psychology professor Neil Montgomery of Keene State College in New Hampshire surveyed 300 college freshmen nationwide and found that students with helicopter parents were less open to new ideas and actions and more vulnerable, anxious, and self-conscious. “[S]tudents who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents—so-called ‘free rangers’—the effects were reversed,” Montgomery’s study found. A 2011 study by Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga looking at more than 300 students found that students with “hovering” or “helicopter” parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.
A 2012 study of 438 college students reported in the Journal of Adolescence found “initial evidence for this form of intrusive parenting being linked to problematic development in emerging adulthood ... by limiting opportunities for emerging adults to practice and develop important skills needed for becoming self-reliant adults.” A 2013 study of 297 college students reported in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students with helicopter parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life and attributed this diminishment in well-being to a violation of the students’ “basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”And a 2014 study from researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder is the first to correlate a highly structured childhood with less executive function capabilities.
None of this is conclusive, but it does seem intuitive that if we want to raise happy, independent young adults, we have to ask them to do a little more for themselves. Unfortunately, the more parents demand reporting from schools—and I don’t mean about things like curriculum or teaching style—the more schools are going to cave. It will take a movement of parents pushing back. Which, by definition, will be hard to build. What parent is going to say “Please stop sending me so many pictures of my child”? But if we trust our schools and our teachers each day with our children, we should be willing to take a few steps back.