Do Not Let Them Be a Helicopter, but Rather a Responsive or Open-to-Learning Parent
By John Hattie and Kyle Hattie
It did not take us long after becoming parents to stop criticizing other parents, as we learned we could not always control our own kids. They can say the darnedest things. Art Linkletter was a US personality who probably was one of the first to host a reality show. His show involved interviewing children, and the premise was that:
Children under ten and women over seventy give the best interviews on the air today for the identical reason: They speak the plain unvarnished truth. They dish out in no uncertain terms, with heartfelt emotion coloring each phrase. No concealing, faltering, hypocritical editorializing among the very young and very old! If you don’t want the truth – better not ask them! And don’t be shocked if it’s phrased in primitive terms.
Your students are not perfect. Yes, you want parents to teach them appropriate behavior, respect others, and know the norms of society that you wish them to have. The dilemma is that every parent has high expectations for their children, and so they should – nearly every 4-year-old is gifted, says funny and wise things, and has perfect manners (when they want to). But they will mess up, not understand, and blurt out inappropriate comments and criticisms.
There are many descriptors of the parent who wants perfection.
- The helicopter parent hovers over their kids, all the time, so what chance of them learning how to be independent and knowing how to act and talk – their parents will make these decisions or whisk them out of the scene to land somewhere else so they can be safe and perfect.
- The jetfighter parent waits more in the wings but is ready to sweep in to save their precious ones in the slightest sign of trouble or stress for the child.
- The snowplow or lawnmower parent is prepared to steamroll ahead of their child to ensure success and privilege.
- The snowflake parent continually claims their child is special and needs special treatment.
- The magic bullet parent demands the secret you have been hiding in your bottom drawer to make their child brilliant, and if they are not brilliant you are the problem.
- The bonsai parent wants a perfectly controlled environment and continues to tweak the environment to move the child even more towards perfection, making the child look good to others, and monitoring the child’s external presentation skills.
- The gifted parent continually claims that their child is gifted, he or she needs a gifted program, should mix only with other gifted children, and should not be sullied or slowed down by the dummies.
- The social media parent does not seem to care if the teacher has a life, and bombards the teacher with questions, reactions, and opinions (not always mentioning their precious one but the messages are clear it is about them).
- The expert parent teacher knows how to teach better than the teacher.
- The drama parents who can so successfully blow up a minor school incident into WWIII (with tears, yelling, and demanding justice from the top-down).
All these helicopter-type parents aim to have children like them, exhibiting the same senses of privilege. If they micromanage their child, chances are they will try to micromanage others, which is not how classrooms or society works. If a parent who is demanding or anxious to be ‘right’, expects to be saved by others, or if they are less likely to take responsibility for their actions, or lack confidence and run for miles from challenging situations – so will their child.
The alternative to being this sort of parent is to become an ‘open-to-learn’ or responsive parent.
Viviane Robinson has developed the concept of open-to-learning conversations for school leaders, and her messages resonate loudly with parents as well. For parents, open-to-learning conversations are relevant when they are learning how their children are thinking and their children are learning how the parents are thinking. This is particularly so when parents and children work together towards decisions and judgments, are answering questions of why and why not, and discussing what to then do, think, and enact. Being open to learning means parents respect their children by listening and aiming to understand their children’s thinking and decision making. The opposite is ‘closed to learning’ which is expressed as edicts such as ‘Do as you are told’, and where there is no opportunity to hear the child’s thinking. This does not mean parents do not have rights or power or that children have highly developed reasoning and thinking skills – they often don’t: What distinguishes the two [being open or closed to learning] is not what the conversation is about, but whether there is openness to learning about the validity of one’s point of view.
Such openness to learning is built on, feeds on, and generates high trust, which can be the most valuable attribute to have in difficult situations when your child most needs you. Parents build this trust so they can deal with tricky and difficult issues. You do need to show their child how to listen to others’ views, listen to their own views, and learn how they and others can challenge their views. They also should know how to invite alternative views, give and receive feedback, and deal with conflict. When parents, or their children, impose their views, there are often negative emotional reactions, winners and losers, and loss of the trust which is so needed for the hard times.
Viviane Robinson has a long list of recommended strategies for increasing school leader responsiveness, and these are just as applicable to parents. They include talking about reasoning, listening to one’s child’s reasoning (remembering it’s not a contest, or about right or wrong, but showing respect by listening), and treating personal views as hypotheses, not truths. Parents and others should look for evidence they may be wrong, and listen deeply, especially when a child (or partner) may have different views. They should expect high standards and constantly check how they are helping their child reach these standards and ensure high levels of turn taking because lectures rarely have lasting effects. In addition, they should work hard to identify the right problem in any discussion and share the problem before they give any answers. Finally, they should check the impact of their parenting to see the quality of decisions and actions.
The pay-off from being an open-to-learn parent comes in times of conflict, whenever there are differences in views or performance is unsatisfactory. The trust they have built and the sense that it is normal for their family to identify and discuss problems makes it much easier to seek alternative views and provides a safe environment for the child to think aloud. The child may not agree with the parents’ decision or actions (they are still the parents) but responsiveness creates a model for the child to also become responsive to them and to others.
Some of the phrases we might want in our ‘responsive’ toolbox (again from Viviane Robinson) include:
- I need to tell you about a possible concern I have about . . .
- I think we may have different views . . .
- I realize this may not be how you see it . . .
- I’m disappointed in your behavior because . . .
- I want to work with you to address their concerns . . .
- What do you think?
- You haven’t said much so far . . . Do you see it differently?
- This time I really want to understand more about your situation . . .
- What other possibilities are there?
- We both agree this is unacceptable as it is . . .
- It sounds like we see the problem the same way . . .
They should not confuse responsiveness and being open to learning as defaulting on their decision-making role as parents. They are still ‘responsible’ for raising the kids, and sometimes the kids do not see through the consequences of their actions, sometimes they need to be taught more optimal ways of behaving and thinking, and sometimes they do make mistakes. Responsiveness creates a context in which to have discussions and teach children, while maintaining great relations, high levels of trust, and respect as a parent. These are the perfect assets for children when they are making and dealing with friends, and dealing with other people, particularly in tricky situations. Having these skills pays off particularly during the adolescent years.
The parents’ job is NOT to create the road for your child to walk down or to sweep the road clear so they have an untrammeled pathway, but to be behind them as walk down the roads and help them develop coping strategies for dealing with the many turns, cul de sacs, and highways they will confront. Families are not like a bus service, where everyone gets on, is driven on the same route down the road, and is dropped off safely at the end of each day. Instead, we want to raise Uber drivers – each child may start from a different place, drive a different route, and end at a different end point. But you want them to be safe, make wise choices, and decide on worthwhile destinations. You do the latter not by clearing the road for them but by teaching them the skills to navigate the road themselves.
Professor John Hattie is a renowned researcher in education. His research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement and evaluation of teaching and learning. John Hattie became known to a wider public with the publication of his two books, Visible Learning and Visible Learning for Teachers, the result of 15 years of research. The books are a synthesis of more than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students. The Visible Learning series has sold more than 1.5 million copies and has been translated into 29 different languages. TES once called John “possibly the world’s most influential education academic.” He is also the co-author of 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners, available April 8, 2022. He has been Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, since March 2011. Before, he was Project Director of asTTle and Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, Canada. You can find a full CV of Professor John Hattie (PDF) at the website of the University of Auckland.
Kyle Hattie is a Year 6 Teacher working in a Primary School in the Northern Suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. Over his 10-year career, he has taught at many year levels, from Prep to Year 6 in both Australia and New Zealand. Kyle has held various leadership titles and has a passion for understanding how students become learners. Kyle Hattie is the co-author of 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners, available April 8, 2022.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.