It was easy enough for my husband, Noah, and I to resist becoming the dreaded helicopter parents who micromanaged schoolwork, waited on our kids’ every whim, or obsessively monitored their electronic lives, when we were both running startup companies in Silicon Valley and our kids were not yet old enough to sext.
We were happily involved enough in the boys’ lives, but we also had our own meaningful deadlines—our own “homework” if you will—and meetings, and sociopolitical environments to navigate, as well as whole offices of other progeniture, otherwise known as employees, to mentor, and I’m sure too often, micromanage. We did not concern ourselves with whether or not our boys’ homework or reading was done by 6 p.m., because we needed to trust them to handle it. We didn’t know when the fifth-grade California mission project was due (nor did we build it for them), or map out test dates on family whiteboards and insist that they study intently. We didn’t run interference between our children and their teachers. School was their job, and our jobs were ours. When we arrived home for dinner in the evening, everyone was generally excited to see one another, discuss our days, and play a game, read, or watch a show.
Then we quit, or rather, Noah did well enough to quit, and my business began to fail. We both stopped working. We were a stay-at-home, mom-and-dad team fortunate enough (and extravagantly thankful) to have some time off to be with our two sons during their never-to-be-recovered adolescence. During that time, we didn’t exactly do their jobs for them, but I, at least, was surprised at how difficult it was not to push them along. I found myself in a bit of a midlife parenting crisis that felt, at times, even more emotionally challenging than juggling motherhood while cofounding a tech company.
Every day at 3 p.m. when our boys got home, we were there too. Noah was less prone to pester, and could be found doing his own thing—planting a garden, watching a movie, all those things one dreams of doing if work didn’t interfere—but I had taken on a different, new role. I made a snack and the boys told me what their homework was, and I worried over how they would get it done while also going to soccer practice, and getting some downtime that was spent productively.
Pretty quickly, the first things out of my mouth after school were often, “How much homework do you have today?” or “Where are you in your reading?” and “Please put down your phone now.” It didn’t matter that they’d always managed their time quite well before. I subconsciously but solidly became confident they needed me to help them now. This wasn’t exactly because Noah or I yearned for them to excel in school, attend an elite college, or impress us at any particular thing. It was, it took me a long time to see, because I had a newly increased need for them to need me, and for me to not let them down. I needed to not fail at the thing that mattered most, and was now my sole job: being a good parent. And yet it seemed like I was becoming an increasingly worse one.
The new temptation to helicopter was not entirely solipsistic, nor was Noah totally innocent of it, and it was in no way discouraged by the environment we lived in. In fact, helicoptering was only the beginning. Noah and I found ourselves in the full-blown technological seduction of “drone parenting,” one made possible by electronic communication.
Our 13-year-old had two hours of homework a night, a three-hour round trip of soccer training, a fairly new phone, and a fondness for social media and YouTube. We not only worried that he get his offline work done, we now felt compelled to monitor his online life, and to keep up to date on his school status daily. His text messages and Instagram accounts were available to us to peruse 24/7, and every day at 5 p.m., an email was blasted to every parent and child at our school, detailing the child’s current up-to-the-minute scores in every area. Every once in a while it would appear as if he was failing a class, when in reality the teacher just hadn’t recorded the latest scores. Every time my husband or I asked him about “that zero” in science or math, there was a good explanation, and we wished we hadn’t asked. But each zero seemed to represent less than adequate oversight by a parent. And then there was the texting. We had let our son know long before he got a phone that we’d be monitoring all his activity, and we promptly set up a direct feed of all his texts to Noah’s desktop. Every week, it seemed, we heard about another local, generally good kid who got in trouble texting inappropriate words or pictures to a peer. Or worse.
We did not want our children to fall behind in school and get stressed, especially in light of local teen suicides, and we wanted to make sure they used technology responsibly, even as we worried about respecting their privacy. So who could blame us, we figured, for reading the school emails, asking about workload, or checking every text?
It seemed our son could. We were pissing our responsible teenager off daily by showing him in no uncertain terms that we did not trust him, that we thought he needed us more than he did or should. Some children need more help, more oversight, than others, and have proven they need to be kept in check. This was not so (yet) for my son, but I began to notice he came to me less and less with school concerns, probably to protect himself from the dreaded, “See, you really should have handled this when it was first assigned” comment. The last thing I wanted was to cut off communication with my teenager by over-communicating to him what I wanted him to do and act like, especially when he was already handling all he needed to handle quite well.
So, with Noah’s sage guidance, right about the same week we bought an actual drone as a fun toy to use with the boys, I began to attempt to turn off the internal motor driving my inner drone parent. Today, this is what I try to do. It’s not perfect in any way, and often I slip and require the kids to do an hour of reading before any electronic fun can occur, but most of the time, it seems to work.
- A face-to-face plea for help from our sons if things are going awry at school is sufficient. We do not even open the daily school communication email.
- I try not to ask about homework unless they ask me for something, like going over to a friend’s house, to which I usually say, “Yes, if you’ve gotten all your work done.” (I figure they are always free to lie to me and say it’s done when it’s not, but they will face the consequences themselves the next day at school, so I don’t check up on it in the moment. I try to trust them enough to give them the chance to make mistakes and fail on their own if they choose to.)
- Instead of asking what they have to do for school or others, I ask them to do light chores for me throughout the week. Sure, they’re often annoyed at first, but overall this seems to empower them and make them feel proud rather than pestered, and I like having a reason to tell them, “Thank you.”
- For now, I do remind my teenager that I can see all his texts. But here’s my secret: I never actually check. I have chosen to trust that he will come to me with any issue that makes him uncomfortable, until he proves otherwise.