At the first middle school parent-teacher conference my husband and I attended, our son’s teacher commented, “In middle school, we encourage parents to allow space for students to solve their own problems.” She was kindly telling us that at this point in our son’s development, our job was to get out of the way and let him figure things out. Before I had a chance to respond, my husband replied proudly to the group, “You don’t have to worry about us . . . we are helicopter parents!”
As you can imagine, the teachers all eyed him suspiciously.
To break the awkward silence, he asked, “Isn’t a helicopter parent someone who drops their kid off and then flies away? Did I use that right?”
“No,” the teacher responded, “The term ‘helicopter parent’ describes a parent who hovers over their child and flies in whenever there is a hint of an issue, leaving no space for the child to build resiliency.”
“Ohhh . . . so if I’m not supposed to be a helicopter, what am I supposed to be?”
How should a parent’s role shift as their child matures?
My husband posed the question out loud, but it’s one I had been asking inwardly since the day our son started middle school—how should my role shift as my son grows up?
The tasks of an elementary school parent felt clearer: volunteer as a guest reader, send snacks on special occasions, purchase supplies from the list provided, chaperone field trips. But as our son got older and was encouraged to find his own way, I felt like I was losing mine.
No longer did I get weekly newsletters from his classroom teacher or requests for volunteers; he was now moving among different classrooms with multiple teachers whose names I couldn’t always remember. Rarely did I get a window into his daily life at school. While I wanted to foster my son’s newfound autonomy, I did not want to appear disengaged.
Parents always exert a strong influence but it’s important to build relationships with other trusted adults
I shared my struggle with a friend who is a school administrator, and she responded,
Parents and at-home adults are, and always will be, the primary influence of their child’s academic and social development, but in middle school, it is important that they build strong relationships with other trusted adults and mentors who will have an influence too.
As he grows up and you feel less connected to his day-to-day school life, turn your attention to how you speak about teachers at home. Your attitude influences his—if you respect the profession of teaching and see educators as resources in your son’s life, there is a greater chance he will see them that way too.
This was such great advice that I asked other educators for their thoughts about the mindset shift that parents of middle schoolers need to make. Here are their tips for how parents and at-home adults can support their adolescent’s academic life:
5 ways parents can support their adolescent’s academic life
1. Understand that expectations influence experience
The way that adults at home speak about the purpose of school greatly shapes the child’s experience. If you speak about school as a place they “have” to go or talk about teachers as people they need to “win over” or “deal with,” it is likely that your child is not reaping the full benefits of their school experience.
Talk about school as a place for exploring, thinking creatively, practicing problem solving, identifying strengths, and building skills. School is a chance to cultivate curiosity and community.
2. Encourage connection with trusted school adults
In adolescence, young people naturally begin seeking mentorship from those who have expertise in their areas of interest, and they often form those relationships through school connections. It is also crucial for students’ mental and physical well-being that they have trusted adults at school they can go to for support and encouragement.
Teach your child what to look for in trusted adults outside of the home—these adults should be accessible (present and available), boundaried (stay within the scope of their expertise and not look to play the role of parent or friend), and caring (invested in the well-being and success of your child).
Use adults in your child’s life currently, as well as characters in books or movies, to help illustrate these qualities (and to talk about behaviors that aren’t conducive to good mentoring) so that young people can practice identifying who to connect with and how to make the most of mentorship.
3. Build the script
Remember that a middle school teacher may be communicating with hundreds of parents each year, and parents may have differing expectations and needs. One way to ensure you are doing the best for your child and also supporting your child’s teacher is to draft a script to include in any correspondence.
Consider a statement like: “I am stepping back to allow my child space to learn responsibility and express his independence, but I’m an email away if I am needed for any reason or if there’s something more I can do to support your work with him.” This signals that you are engaged and available but also committed to appropriately stepping out of the way to encourage your child’s growth.
4. Commit to doing with not for your child
Gone are the days of the quarterly report card—parents today have instant access to their child’s academic progress, though research on whether this type of constant monitoring is helpful or harmful to a young person’s growth is ongoing. One tip for mentoring rather than monitoring is to commit to only checking your child’s academic portal with your child.
Invite your child to share their progress with you and fill you in on test scores and assignments. If a teacher needs to be contacted, support your child by writing to a teacher with them, not for them. This easy strategy helps your child build a sense of ownership over their academic progress.
5. Avoid daytime communication with your child
Make a rule that you will not contact your child during school hours unless there is an emergency—and define “emergency” for your family. Many parents have a habit of messaging their children throughout the day with pick-up info, questions about missing assignments, or other reminders. Parents are, of course, well-intentioned, but even if the child’s phone is put away in a locker or backpack, gadgets buzzing with notifications create distraction and sometimes concern.
Allow your child the freedom to put their phone away and fully engage in school. And when your child has an issue at school, their first action should be to talk to an adult at school who can help them with a problem on the spot rather than texting home. This encourages students to learn to seek resources, ask questions, find answers, and solve problems, and so gain the confidence we hope for them.
Instead of being a helicopter this school year, I plan on becoming a co-pilot, sous chef, or back-up battery, although maybe the metaphor does not matter as much as my mantra. And the mantra I’m sticking to is this: “My responsibility is that he grows a little each day, and sometimes that means getting out of his way.”
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Brooklyn Raney is the author of One Trusted Adult: How to Build Strong Connections and Healthy Boundaries with Young People. After working in schools for more than a decade, she founded One Trusted Adult, a company through which she has spent the past five years working with youth-serving professionals, parents, and guardians to develop strategies for strengthening relationships in homes, schools, and communities so they can best support the positive development of youth.
She is a research-practitioner who holds a BA from Colgate University, an MA in Educational Theater from NYU, and an MS in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, where she is currently a doctoral candidate. Brooklyn’s research explores the intersection of student perception, teacher sustainability, and parent expectation as it relates to an ethic of care in schools.