kitchen table math, the sequel: Helicopter parent thread at the Atlantic

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Helicopter parent thread at the Atlantic

The possibly-inevitable helicopter parent thread has erupted at the Atlantic, so if any of you has the time or inclination to leave a comment, I hope you will.

I've just left this one:

I'm Catherine, a 'character' in the book (for the record, I tutored my own son for SAT math & took the test myself, once.)

Reading this passage I see that a fairly important section of the chapter has been omitted, and that is Debbie's attitude toward her son's grades.

The problem wasn't the Bs.

The problem was that her son was sliding by. He was underachieving, as his math teacher says.

Actually, I have a copy of the manuscript - here's the section that appears in the book but not in the excerpt:

"For me–and this was where I parted ways with the school–the issue wasn’t grades. I would have been proud of Ethan’s B’s if the math teacher had bounced in and said, “Ethan’s a hard worker.” But that’s not what he said, and it wasn’t what I was seeing. Ethan was taking the easy path, and the school was in his camp. The administrators thought Ethan, a happy-go-lucky, disorganized middle school boy with ADHD, should determine his own academic goals."

The boy whose parents were told they should be happy with Cs (in high school) is a friend of my family; I contributed his story to the book. That boy also has ADHD and his case was one of very significant underachievement.

With both boys, the school's approach to an underachieving student with ADHD and a 504 plan was to push back against the parents instead of providing the "accommodations" the boys needed to function as well as their peers (and which the school is obligated to provide).

And in both cases, too, the boys ended up transferring to Catholic schools where they did much better without any SPED 'services' at all. (Neither family is Catholic.)

Judging by some of the emails Debbie's been receiving, parents of kids with ADHD seem pretty often to be the target of 'helicopter parent' judgments made by school administrators.

I'm love to know how many parents have this experience.
Debbie has now had several emails from parents with the same story: an underachieving child with ADHD, a school administrator conveying the message that a) parents shouldn't "push" and b) they're the only parents who are pushing.

I'm now wondering how many people with kids on 504 plans are explicitly told, by school personnel, that "letting" their child "fail" is a good motivator for children with ADHD.


Accidental Baker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
momof4 said...

I've always felt that ADD/ADHD has increasingly become the default label for normal boy behavior. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist, but I don't think it exists in the majority of cases. Schools have become increasingly unfriendly to boys, in the past decades; classroom arrangement (group tables not individual desks), instructional practices (groups, discovery, little explicit instruction, complicated projects with unclear directions), class climate (artsy-crafty,touchy-feely), and choice of reading assignments (focus on emotions, not Robinson Crusoe and Friday, adventures,science, battles and historical novels). Boys are pushing back, in ways that don't help them. Many Catholic schools still operate like most public schools once did and boys aren't treated like defective girls and medicated accordingly.

momod4 said...

I meant to add that I knew families who immediately pursued a spec ed diagnosis, with ADD/ADHD being the default one, in order to get extra time on tests - immediately upon the SAT's removal of the "non-standard testing conditions" label on the score reports. Lo and behold, the number of kids with the diagnoses in our affluent suburban county increased

Debbie Stier said...

I'm really surprised by the reaction at the Atlantic. I expected more from them.

Helicopter Parent is such a bullying, below the belt, non-comment.

Thank you for your great comment Catherine. I'm going to post it.

Anonymous said...

And this is the article to which Catherine is referring:

"I Took the SAT 7 Times to Help My Son Get Into College"

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...


You wrote: "I'm really surprised by the reaction at the Atlantic. I expected more from them."

But ...

It probably doesn't help that the *title* of the article is: "I Took the SAT 7 Times to Help My Son Get Into College" not, "I took the SAT 7 times because I had a book contract to write a kind of 'consumer reports' on the various test preps..."

As Catherine said in one of the comments she left to the Atlantic article: "she **didn't** take the SAT 7 times to help her son get into college (or to raise his scores) -- that would be crazy!" But, of course, this crazy activity is exactly what the headline says you did with respect to *taking* the test and it certainly implies it with respect to raising his test scores!

So ... continuing with this thread, we get the headline claiming that you took the SAT 7 times to help your kid get into college. Then we read this: "My original idea was to try out 12 different methods of test prep the year before Ethan would be taking his first SAT. But as I saw how vast and complicated the realm of SAT prep appeared to be, I kept adding layers to the idea. What was at first simply the notion of taking an official SAT at school with the kids mushroomed into a vow to take the test every time it was offered in 2011. And I’d try out different locations for each test, which turned out to be a total of five. (I didn’t anticipate the issue of test centers booking up early and ended up having to repeat a few.) I wanted to see if the location played any role in the test experience, so I choose schools ranging from an elite private school in the suburbs to an urban public school in the Bronx."

I hope that it is clear how this *looks* to the readers. The headline sets things up that this is to get your kid into college (by raising his test scores). Then we find out that you are trying out different testing locations. In context, it sounds like this is to see if your son can get a 10-20 point advantage by selecting an easier/better test venue. This isn't why you were doing this, but it sure reads that way.

And the way it reads screams "unhinged helicopter mom".

So ... I'm sorry that you aren't happy with the reaction over at The Atlantic (and, if I understand magazine publishing you didn't even get to select the article title), but the way the words there read, you do come across as, um ... unhinged :-)

The good news is that this is probably good PR for your book as people up in arms means that people are noticing ...

Hope things calm down soon.

Mark Roulo

HelicopterInWestchester said...

My son is in exactly that situation, a very bright kid who was very disorganized and badly underachieving as a result (he would do all his homework and then forget to hand it in!!!). Once we finally bit the bullet and got the ADHD diagnosis and a 504 plan, things got much better. We are in a Westchester County district, not the same one as the blog owner but not too far away. Our district has been very accomodating. Not everything is perfect in practice, but when I pointed out problems, they fixed them. As a result, my kid is now scoring in the high 90's in everything. Yes, I was that helicopter parent. And it wasn't because I was upset with the B's and C's per se, but because I couldn't stand watching my bright middle school son become increasingly depressed and despondent about his grades. Fortunately, my district seems to be OK with it.

SteveH said...

I read The Atlantic article and I thought it was great. Screw the bad comments. You can't win the battle over opinion. You can only give hope to some, and I'm sure you've done that.

One commenter thought that taking the SAT 7 times was "insane." Three was enough for him, thank you. Apparently, that comes in below the "insane" level. Blah, blah, blah.

If you pay a company $40K during high school to do this, does the "helicopter parent" epithet not apply? Did Debbie's book have to be loaded with caveats? And of course, journalists love to push hot buttons. And many love to take the bait. I know some people who seem to be at their happiest when they are complaining about something.

My sister worked with her son (who was considered to be slow) to give him a good chance for the future. She helped with college prep. Nobody would ever call her a helicopter parent. What she did was noble. The pejorative helicopter term, however, is never defined.

Fairness and competition are funny things. Whenever there is something very desirable, some people will spend huge amounts of time or money for very small advantages. It seems odd that many people can deal with family income differences, but not time (helicopter parent) differences.

Many students take school-promoted SAT prep courses. The one used around here costs about $500 and has the students take 5 real tests from the "Blue Book". These are full simulations on Saturdays. It's like taking the SAT 5 times. Actually, it's better because some colleges want to see all of your official scores. Nobody calls them helicopter parents.

There is a point of diminishing returns, and these students reach that point if they are properly involved with the process. Getting a perfect score is a catchy, but problematic goal, but many students put a lot of time and effort in maximizing their scores, helicopter or not. Bitching about rich people might not work, but the helicopter parent term has lots of traction, especially when you don't define it.

Anonymous said...

I think "helicopter parent" is defined by the way people use it. They mean: "a parent who is doing more than they are." And "irresponsible" is a parent who does less.


Anonymous said...

Catherine- I have experienced exactly the same thing you described. My son is only 11, but has been diagnosed with ADHD. I have spent the last 18 months fighting to implement a very basic 504 plan to keep my son on task.

These are not big accomodations, they are as simple as having my son sit in the front of the class and having the teacher review what my son has written down for homework every night. However, both the teacher and the school district have not met their part of the bargain.

The teacher told me I have to let him fail and that only by failure will he learn what he needs to do. I do feel that i am branded as pushy, or unreasonable because I am trying to provide him with the accomodations he will need to succeed. Is that being a helicopter parent?

If our children have a fever we give them Tylenol, we don't expect that they will heal themselves with time and patience. Why do the schools judge the parents who are trying to provide the right tools and oversight for their kids who have ADHD? The parents are not the problem, it is the school districts who are.

Jenn Cohen said...

Just wanted to throw in a vote of support for Debbie, too. Just left the following on the Atlantic article:

I think the accusations of helicopter parenting are a bit overblown. The pathological sort of helicopter parenting I see is much more about parents stepping in to do FOR their children. Those are the parents who do the kid's science projects for them, or smother them with concerns for their "safety" to the point of never letting a kid leave the house. Debbie absolutely did not go in and take the test for Ethan, nor did Ethan take it seven times! And though I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, I suspect that the number of hours she put in to the Project far outnumber those that Ethan did. No one would blink an eye if she'd hired tutors to work with her son. But the fact that she did it herself is so far outside the norm that we want to assume she had some negative motives (which she didn't). If the Project was something like building a shed in the backyard, or doing some sort of community service, we'd all be praising Debbie for being involved in her son's life. Just because it's the SAT, which just about everyone loves to hate, it's getting a lot more criticism than it deserves.

Further, a critical point is that Ethan carries an ADHD diagnosis. I'm an SAT/ACT tutor who specializes in LD/ADHD students. I work with kids like Ethan all the time, and the truth is that they need more guidance and structure than the average kid. Parents seek out my services because they know their child is going to need extra support which I'm equipped to provide. The ADHD brain is just not good at planning and organizing (and add in the normal teen problems with judgment), so these students need external structure to accomplish any large project like preparing for a test like the SAT. Debbie decided to take on that job herself, rather than farming it out to someone else. That's hardly a sin. Parents of children with learning differences often feel they HAVE to be their child's advocate because the school's aren't always willing or able to go the extra mile to ensure a child is learning. If Debbie has just let Ethan fend for himself with the college process, there would have been another group calling her neglectful. The vast majority of parents are just doing their best, and the fact that a parent thought fighting her own demons/past SAT scores would be a way to help her child ought to get a little respect.

HelicopterInWestchester said...

Anonymous, if one teacher is refusing to carry out interventions, you need to contact the 504 committee and ask them to step in. Do you have documentation and recommendations from the doctor who did the dx? It helps if your doctor is a specialist who is used to intervening and even speaking at 504/IEP meetings. I have a child on an IEP for a disability which is not a learning disability or ADHD. He sees a specialist who does his evaluations and who has teleconferenced into the IEP meetings when needed. That can be really helpful.
And that line about needing to fail is just the worst ever! In my kid's case, the constant failure was doing nothing except making him very depressed and less likely to try.

Catherine Johnson said...

As Catherine said in one of the comments she left to the Atlantic article: "she **didn't** take the SAT 7 times to help her son get into college (or to raise his scores) -- that would be crazy!" But, of course, this crazy activity is exactly what the headline says you did with respect to *taking* the test and it certainly implies it with respect to raising his test scores!

My comment was subsequently deleted by Atlantic.

So was Erica Meltzer's comment.

I'll try to find time today to protest.

In a nutshell, the Atlantic editor wrote the headline then deleted the two comments that refuted the headline on a factual basis.

According to the editor, the Atlantic has a 'policy' against posting comments that mention book contracts. However, that policy was unknown to me, and if that is indeed a policy, then they need to give the author approval over the headline.