The Third Week of June

It’s the third week of June. For those of us who grow up in the Northeast, that always means finals week. Even if we haven’t seen in the inside of school in thirty years, those early school rituals leave long shadows. That’s why we all secretly believe that September marks the real beginning of a year, not January. And we still associate the first week of September with new binders, a fresh pair of jeans, and the excitement of seeing THAT boy for the first time in two months. (This year, he’ll notice me, for sure!)

The third week of June is the dying embers of the school year — teachers too burned out to teach, so they let us play card games while they grade last minute papers on the Grapes of Wrath. As we play “spit” and “gin rummy,” we put aside the mild feelings of regret over the B’s on the report card, because we’re teenagers and we don’t have the front lobe development yet for full fledged regret and despair.

I’m reliving all that stress and boredom of the last week of school now through my son, Jonah. He’s a high school junior cramming for his math exam in his upstairs bedroom probably with the digital equivalent of our card games in the background. He clicks it off the screen the second before I walk in his room and thinks I don’t notice.  In a few days, he’ll also have that mild, short lived regret. Full-on regrets will come in another twenty years.

Until I became a parent, I didn’t know that new baby poop was the color of mustard or that a wet Cheerio shrank to half its diameter after a few days under the kitchen table. I didn’t know the pain of stepping on a Lego brick on the way to the bathroom at 1am. I didn’t know how much I would deeply feel my kids’ pain and joys. I didn’t understand how much brain capacity I would devote to making their lives better.

Sure, teachers hate those helicopter parents — parents who hover and coach and intervene to give their kids an edge. But, really, all of us are helicopter parents. We’re hardwired to make our kids’ lives better. Most of us wouldn’t break the legs of the cheerleading rival to get a spot for our daughter. But if we can smooth the way for them, put our savings into Kumon classes rather than a new car, and proofread the history paper, we’ll do it.

There’s always a parenting guru on the Today Show trying to pedal a book that lectures us that it’s good to let kids fail. Failing, they tell us, builds resiliency or grit or chest hair. The books always sell well, but I’m not sure whether anybody actually reads them. Nobody is going to let their kids skip a history final, when they can badger that kid to get to school at the right time with at least 60 percent of the battles of WWII committed to memory. Grit, be damned. We gotta get that kid to Rutgers in two years.

Over the years, I’ve hovered and coached as much as he would let me. I suppose that’s part of the growing up process — telling the parent to back off. And to his credit, he’s told me to back off a lot. I actually think he’s told us to back off too much. He wouldn’t let his father help him on his European history final last year. Steve has a PhD in European history and enough books on Hitler that we’re probably on some FBI watch list. He wouldn’t let me help him with exam on the impact on enlightenment philosophy on the American constitution. Ugh! Please, please let me tell you about Locke and Thomas Jefferson! I taught college classes on this! I know more than your teacher! I love this stuff! No, he said.

32 thoughts on “The Third Week of June

  1. “In a few days, he’ll also have that mild, short lived regret. Full-on regrets will come in another twenty years.”

    Really? do you think so? I do not feel like I should have studied harder for any test that I took in HS. And, I don’t even feel that way about college, even though my grades were worse there. On the other hand, I did have moments of serious distress while I was going through it all. Maybe a difference in personalities. I would tell my 18 year old self to get a grip because it doesn’t really matter (and that’s what my HS student needs to hear, too).

  2. “Please, please let me tell you about Locke and Thomas Jefferson! I taught college classes on this! I know more than your teacher! I love this stuff! ”
    🙂 This is one of the most annoying thing about being a parent, when you kow so much and they won’t listen to you (especially when you love teaching about it and are really good at it)

    I think we needed to tell them about enlightenment philosophy (or, in my case, biology) when they were ten, and would listen to us. Unfortunately, my HS student stopped listening to my expertise on anything when she was about six. My middle-schooler, on the other hand, is happily ensconced learning about electricity and magnetism from his grandfather.

    Glad to have you back during your sabbatical from projects.

  3. Laura said:

    “He’s a high school junior cramming for his math exam in his upstairs bedroom probably with the digital equivalent of our card games in the background.”

    Oh my goodness! How did he get to be a junior!!!!

  4. Laura said:

    “He wouldn’t let his father help him on his European history final last year. Steve has a PhD in European history and enough books on Hitler that we’re probably on some FBI watch list. He wouldn’t let me help him with exam on the impact on enlightenment philosophy on the American constitution. Ugh! Please, please let me tell you about Locke and Thomas Jefferson! I taught college classes on this! I know more than your teacher! I love this stuff! No, he said.”

    GAAAAAH!

    Big Girl is almost 14 now and we run into similar issues, although not as obviously blatantly. For instance, I’ll tell her to practice more and nothing, but her music teacher tells her the same thing, and it’s as if Moses had come down from Sinai with “Practice more and you’ll sound better!” on stone tablets.

    So, I think that at some point, who we put in our kids lives is just as important as what we are saying. I also believe in the value of kids getting told stuff in stereo–getting it both at home and at school.

  5. I was in New Jersey from noon to about 4:30 this afternoon. I’m not sure how to fix education in your state, but somebody needs to teach the drivers what is an acceptable amount of space in which to merge. (Hint: larger than the car you are driving.)

    1. You’re not a real Jersey driver until you can merge with inches to spare while driving 70 mph. With Springsteen on the stereo. While flipping off the dude with the out of state license plates.

  6. S took her finals last week because she has been at Girls State all this week. I don’t know what my son has been doing in 8th grade but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing important because June is “Field Trip Month.” Meanwhile, I am busier than I have ever been in June, driving E places, going to work and doing work-stuff (hiring new faculty member) and socializing. At this point I just want to crawl into a cave with my laptop and an everlasting battery and not engage with the world for 2 months. #grumpyoldlady

  7. That’s funny, our daughter never stopped asking me for help with schoolwork. I actually wished at times she would be more independent, but of course, in a lot of cases, she got beyond me anyway, e.g.., I can’t go beyond first year Spanish, I can’t remember how to do multi-variable integration, I’m not very good on the Fourth Amendment. She resisted my wife, but that’s because my wife does not grasp the answering questions/giving advice dichotomy.

  8. Sometime during middle school, my children stopped showing me homework. Of course their grades suffered. It was embarrassing to have no idea of upcoming tests in their classes, in comparison to the other mothers. I have at times felt ineffective.

    On the other hand, their successes were their own, as were their failures. They chose to go to boarding schools, which meant their peers’ parents also did not see homework. And the IT department could check up on excessive use of online resources in cases of suspected cheating. (of course, many kids would know ways around the school internet. On the other hand, some teenaged cheating is amazingly overt.)

    1. Cranberry said:

      “Sometime during middle school, my children stopped showing me homework. Of course their grades suffered. It was embarrassing to have no idea of upcoming tests in their classes, in comparison to the other mothers.”

      Because of adding Baby Girl to the family several years ago, at some point I had to go to an honor system for our two school age kids. I’d just ask, “Do you have homework?” One of our kids can be a little weasely about that question (apparently tests, major projects, and so forth don’t count as “homework”), but it generally works, especially when supplemented with a weekly look at the online grades. Our 8th grader’s two lowest course grades for spring term were 92 and 93 (one for biology, one for logic). I feel like the logic grade was unnecessarily low, but it’s pretty close to what it needs to be. The low grade in biology is actually a bit of an achievement, because she HATED biology. Looking at the grades roughly weekly gives me a good enough idea of what’s going on.

      Over the last year, I’ve also instituted an end-of-term bonus program for the two school kids where they each get $5 for a course grade from 95-99 and $7 for 100+. Especially for the 8th grader, it helps for there to be a carrot available for doing the sort of extra effort that makes a difference between a 90 and a 95 or a 95 and a 100.

  9. Wow. By middle school, my mother stopped monitoring my homework at all. Beyond looking at my report card 4x a year, she left managing my school work and projects to me. There were no rewards for doing well, and no punishments for doing poorly beyond a remark or two. Also, since she had to leave for work before I left for school (walking in MS, taking public transit in HS), she had no idea if I even went to school. (Senior year depression meant I frequently showed up to school late, skipping 1-3rd period). My mother let me know my own life was my own business, and I could choose to do well in school and go to a good college (on merit scholarship or need based aid at an Ivy), or choose to do poorly and not go to college. When it came time for college, I did all the research and picked out all the schools on my own. My mother would read over parts of the application if I asked her to, but she never volunteered any help or suggestions. My mother was unusually free range at the time, in part out of personality & belief systems and in part because she was a single mom working 60 hours a week, but I don’t understand why parenting has to be so OTT intensive.

    On the other hand, their successes were their own, as were their failures.

    I think this is really key. I know tons of incompetent children of UMC/UC parents, many of whom were themselves driven and self made. The kids are incompetent in many different ways–some are spoiled, some are lazy, some are smart and some aren’t, but the biggest thing is they’re mostly fragile, stagnant, and incapable of being self driven. They were never allowed to be ambitious or successful in their own terms, so whenever they actually have to deal with life on their own, they can’t. Normally it’s fine–mommy and daddy continue to grease the wheels well into the thirties, but if for whatever reason they can’t, the kids sort of flounder. I’ve often wondered why parents–many of whom were driven and successful themselves–would handicap their own children in such a way.

    1. “Wow. By middle school, my mother stopped monitoring my homework at all.”

      My parents also had a mostly hands-off approach, which mostly worked for my sister and me, up until my younger brother came along. He was apparently able to intercept quite a number of report cards without them noticing. He often did homework without remembering to turn it in and his high school grades were often dismal. He did turn it around eventually, but I suspect his grades limited his choice of college quite a bit, and he paid for college by doing military reserves and wound up serving two tours in Iraq during his college years. He became an officer, has a lovely little family, recently got out after quite a few years, and has just landed a great civilian job, but all of this could have gone a lot worse for him.

      My parents were really busy with their business once they only had their youngest kid at home, and he largely fell through the cracks. (My mom had been a SAHM before that, but not of the check-your-homework kind, as I was an 80s kid in a blue collar family.)

      I had some poor years in 4th and 5th grade (especially 4th grade), as there were a lot of transitions in my family at the time (new sibling, a move, trying to build a house while living in it, etc.). Looking back, I needed a lot more home support than I was getting. I kept that experience in mind when we had our most recent baby when our oldest was roughly that same age (5th grader). I wasn’t really able to helicopter very well, but I did what I could and our daughter stayed on the tracks.

      A lot of boys (or girls with attention issues) will go SPLAT if not monitored. I suspect that my brother almost certainly had some sort of diagnosable attention issues.

      Hands-off works for some kids, but it’s a disaster for others.

  10. >He wouldn’t let his father help him on his European history final last year. Steve has a PhD in European history and enough books on Hitler that we’re probably on some FBI watch list. He wouldn’t let me help him with exam on the impact on enlightenment philosophy on the American constitution. Ugh! Please, please let me tell you about Locke and Thomas Jefferson! I taught college classes on this!

    My father and mother’s areas of expertise were, respectively, construction and dog grooming. When it came to school, I was on my own. They were very encouraging (they scraped together the money to send me to the private school that was my launchpad into the life I have today), but there was no “help” to be had.

    Many of my high school classmates had the advantage of “help” from their college professor (neurosurgeon, actuary, or just plain super-involved) parents. (My mother had never attended a college class, much less taught one.) But I managed to study and write and fail and eventually succeed, not because I was unusually intelligent, but because that’s how the process works.

    I admire and appreciate your son’s willingness to do it on his own – I suspect that he is entirely capable. He is already at a terrific advantage because he has been raised by well-educated people who care deeply about educating him; you don’t need to micromanage on top of that.

  11. There’s a little bit of a survivor fallacy problem here, in that if a kid got the hands-off treatment and didn’t turn out OK, they wouldn’t be posting here.

    1. What’s OK? I’m not trying to start a fight, it’s just that I’ve gotten old enough now that funerals and memorial services are appearing more often on our calendar.

      So, what’s OK? Our parents, and their peers, didn’t invest huge amounts of time hovering over our school work. They didn’t micromanage our social life, either. I don’t think the current fad of Competitive Parenting is necessarily healthy in the long run. (See: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/and-dont-help-your-kids-with-their-homework/358636/).

      I don’t remember graded homework in my childhood. I remember doing homework, but it wasn’t a high-pressure affair. Check, you did the homework. Now it is a high pressure affair. And if corporate lawyers and chemists are doing their children’s homework (as has been alleged for some time in multiple publications), you could definitely say that the bar has been raised vis a vis homework. Of course, I think that someone else doing your homework for you is not an advantage, long term.

      I can think of some high-pressure parenting kids who did not turn out OK.

      Then again, what’s normal? Is it accepted in the upper middle class that adolescents have to rebel against their parents in some way, in order to segue from childhood to an adult identity? When I was younger, I had the impression people were not freaked out by teenagers being contrary and doing some stupid stuff. By the way, “doing some stupid stuff” does not mean “not handing in homework.” I remember hearing a great deal of talk about “stages.”

      Maybe that’s passé? But I can’t figure out when it would be acceptable on the current UMC Life Schedule for a teenager to be normal. Maybe that’s the reason for the sudden rise (reported in magazines) in popularity of the Gap Year. But then again, late teens are not supposed to be using that time to be “finding themselves.” No, they’re supposed to be traveling the world building latrines and starting businesses. Self insight on a schedule.

      AmyP, I’m not really reacting to you. I gather we’re living in very different environments. I’m reacting to the local setting, in which some parents live vicariously through their children. A child getting into an Ivy League college is not proof of parental virtue. A kid who decides he wants to work directly after high school is also a good result. (But not letting your child proceed with his/her college plans because the college doesn’t meet your standards is not a good result.) It’s like obsessing about the wedding, while forgetting the marriage is a different experience.

      1. Of course, I think that someone else doing your homework for you is not an advantage, long term.

        I completely agree with this. It’s a short-sighted solution to a petri dish of stress and competition that doesn’t really matter in the long run. If parents do the HW kids don’t learn. The parents do everything that the kid is supposed to do that develops them intellectually and psychologically into adults, so the kids remain in a state of arrested development. Kids don’t learn higher executive functioning skills, they don’t learn problem solving, and they don’t learn chemistry/history/etc. And then, when does it stop? Does chemist mom come in and take the tests that Jr. fails because he never worked through the concepts himself? Does she take his SAT II subject test? What about college? Does he send the homework back home and get mom to do it then? How about in his first job? Maybe mom gets him a interview, does she sit in next to him? Does she do his job for him? It’s actually far better to let your kid do poorly on his HW when the stakes don’t matter than teach your kids 1) it’s never ok to stumble and then learn from your mistakes, and 2) you are a completely incompetent human.

        Also, teachers can generally tell who does the HW. They’re pretty suspicious of kids who don’t seem to know what’s going on but get As on homework. They know who does well in class because they understand the concepts and participate meaningfully in class, and they know who just got parents/tutors to do it. I went to a highly-regarded IB public high school. My physics teacher gave extra credit to students who would walk through the homework problems step by step in class. My history teacher assigned almost entirely in-class essays.

      2. Cranberry said:

        “They didn’t micromanage our social life, either.”

        My parents didn’t either.

        Not unrelated: I didn’t have any friends in early elementary school.

        I worked a lot harder on my oldest’s social life and social skills (especially since she got an Asperger’s diagnosis when she was 6) and she is on great terms with her classmates at a small private school. She just had a fabulous 8th grade year (which not everybody can say) and is looking forward to 9th grade.

        (I almost certainly would have gotten a diagnosis when I was a 1st grader, had it been 30 years later, and had my parents been better off.)

        “I don’t think the current fad of Competitive Parenting is necessarily healthy in the long run.”

        I don’t believe in competitive parenting either and I think you can get 80% of the results with 20% of the effort–but it’s VERY important to put in that 20%.

        “Is it accepted in the upper middle class that adolescents have to rebel against their parents in some way, in order to segue from childhood to an adult identity?”

        Well, UMC parents have much more buddy-buddy relationships with kids than other socioeconomic groups. There’s a lot more room for self-expression and individuality earlier on. That is simply NOT the case in a lot of other parenting cultures.

        Hence, UMC kids might not need to rebel much. Or they might, like the Tiger Mom’s daughter, rebel by doing tennis instead of classical music.

        “I gather we’re living in very different environments.”

        Right. I’m in a Texas college community, with a lot of very educated, involved parents, but nobody is doing the crazy NE stuff. It’s different when you know that your kid can either get into UT Austin (40% acceptance) or Texas A&M (69% acceptance), and either one would be JUST fine and not astronomically expensive. Also, the median home in TX costs $155k. So, achieving a middle class lifestyle is not the Thunderdome-like experience it is in certain coastal areas.

        Also, I don’t need to think very hard for examples of neglectful or disengaged parents from my hometown in WA.

  12. I don’t know. My feeling is there is more than one way to get somewhere in life (wherever that is), and this gets lost in UMC East Coast college admissions neurosis. I was an A+ student at my IB HS, went to an elite college, and got into the top PhD program in my discipline. My boyfriend, in the same program, failed out of HS, then failed out of community college for a bit until he was ready to do well. Then he got his AA and transferred to a good public school in his state (CA). I graduated debt free from college because I went to one of a handful of institutions which gives generous need-based aid to any students they admit; my boyfriend graduated debt free because he tinkered around with computers when he was unemployed and got decent paying work as a computer repair guy. There are people in my program who failed out of state college and joined the military; there are people with JDs from Harvard Law. If someone is motivated and driven, if they’re given even a fraction of the support that most commenters here have already given their kids they’ll succeed.

  13. But, really, all of us are helicopter parents. We’re hardwired to make our kids’ lives better. Most of us wouldn’t break the legs of the cheerleading rival to get a spot for our daughter. But if we can smooth the way for them, put our savings into Kumon classes rather than a new car, and proofread the history paper, we’ll do it.

    I also don’t think this is universal, or even all that common of an attitude in the US outside of certain bubbles.

    Probably the closest I got to helicopter parents were my grandparents, who were classic working class immigrants who wanted better for their kids, but it was still pretty different from UMC American helicopter parenting. I always joke my grandmother’s style like a cross between Tiger Mom and Nietzsche. She thought things like compliments spoiled children, and “self-esteem” was a concept invented to keep American children weak.

    1. There’s probably some kind of way to classify ethnic groups by whether you’re supposed to be nicer to your own family because they are family who you should support or whether you can be assholes to them because they are family who can’t get rid of you.

      1. Yeah. My mother ranks somewhere in between the IRS and the dept of homeland security in being friendly and encouraging when I call her for help. She’s definitely less friendly than the IRS, but at least she doesn’t charge by the minute when I talk to her, like immigration did.

        On the flip side, I’m getting the advantages of family members who actually prioritize you through my Italian boyfriend. I’m in grad school and want kids. My mother’s line is, “don’t have any kids you can’t afford, and don’t expect me to help” (that might change if I actually gave her a grandchild), and my boyfriend’s mother has basically offered to show up on our door with money and 24-hour childcare if we do have a kid.

  14. Some kids turn out fine with little parental help/guidance/hovering/whatever. Others don’t. And most who survive the tiger moms do just fine. I don’t know the correct way to parent. We’ve got our own thing in this house based on the needs and personalities of our kids and ourselves.

    We’re middle of the road for around here. I don’t check his grades online at all. Other parents look three times a day. (Hey, I even wrote an article about that one.) We haven’t hired tutors or college coaches. I am helping him organize his paperwork for college, because I know a ton about all this stuff. Why wouldn’t I help him? We’re going on tours because you actually HAVE to go on the tours these days. It makes a big difference in terms of getting in.

    And all this time on Jonah is peanuts compared to what I have to do for Ian. Since January, I’ve taken Ian to Yale for a two day evaluation. Looked at 7 schools, some three times. Hired an advocate. And had at least 25 hour-long meetings at school. (He’s too smart, but too socially immature for any in-district program, so we have to find another program for him.) Every week, I drive him to keyboard, drum, Kumon, swim, and drama lessons. I went into a meeting this morning, but someone had a last minute emergency, so it had to be rescheduled for next week. I still don’t know where he’s going to go to school in September.

    The school told me that they would pay for Ian to go to another school (including private ones), but they didn’t help me find those schools. I did all that research on my own. I can’t even quantify the time put into that one.

    Want to hear more? I’ve signed him up with the state to register him with the department of disabilities. (60 page application.) I have to fill out paperwork with the state, so they’ll pay $800 for camp.

    I found two summer camps for him. One will involved three hours of driving per day.

    We’re still trying to get the insurance company to pay for the Yale trip.

    When special needs parents tell you that it’s a full time, they aren’t lying.

  15. I think it’s always a good plan to presume that parents are making the right decisions for their kids (you know, minus incidents of actual abuse). We don’t know the other children and what they need, and it’s a terrible plan to assume that what works with one’s own children will work (or for ourselves) will work for other children. So when I discuss parenting, it’s parenting as a community and not other parent’s decisions.

    Schools, though, have other decisions to make, in the structures they set up that encourage and discourage different behaviors. I’m guessing schools make different decisions, too. Ours officially wants parents to stay out of kids educational lives, for the most part. They try to discourage monitoring by communicating directly with the children (and not with parents) on most issues. They do not have an online grade checking system (only formal report cards). Presumably, to get more direct information, one would have to provide some form of request for accommodation for disabilities (which I would guess some students have). The school tries to avoid offering competitive activities (except for sports).

    On the other hand, there’s a hothouse of expectation for many of the students (about half UMC, half on financial aid) that they will be national contenders in something (some of them know what, others are seeking it). There are parents in the know in trying to figure that out, hiring college counselors before freshman year, hiring tutors who pre-teach the curriculum, summer classes (offered by the school) to optimize schedules and grades. And, the school doesn’t mind much of that stuff, if they can maintain sufficient ignorance that they don’t feel responsible for it — they want national contenders, so if parents find ways to get their kids those opportunities, they are pleased (though in a low key enough way that they can avoid responsibility).

  16. OOOOHHH, HOW I LOVE THIS POST!!

    I missed it because last week was MISERABLE! But I’m back! And now I have to go and read all lf the comments because that’s what we do here in apt11D… the conversations are so great!!

    Anyway, yeah, my son Kelvin is two years younger than Jonah, but I LOVE reading what you write about parenting. I 100% agree that we’re helicopter parents and, talk about the ANGUISH of them not letting us help them with things we did our phds on. Sigh…

    Good thing that at least in Physics & Math my son listens to his dad (for now). And they still let me proofread their papers.

    OK, gotta go, guests coming in five minutes!

  17. I think one of the differences between now and 30 years ago is that the screen temptations are much more seductive than they were back then. I know that one of the big parenting challenges is making sure to regularly peel the kids off of their devices when they have a lot of down time (like in the summer).

    The last couple years, I’ve been noticing a lot of “lost boys” online. They’re late teens/early 20-somethings who seem to have been raised by screens. They tend to be very negative about women, don’t seem to have any positive in-real-life social interactions with the female sex, are often a little spectrummy, and embrace complicated (but rather stupid) conspiracy theories about how guys like them are shut out of dating. (See Elliot Rodgers.)

    So, I feel like there are a lot worse things than being over-parented.

    Also, if I had an autism spectrum son, this would scare me to death–these boys seem very vulnerable to falling into the manosphere head-first.

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