Failure to Launch? Stop Parenting and Be a Parent

With a simple click, Amy French – at home, work, or on her cell phone – can find out how her 13-year-old son, Bryan Kimball, did on an exam or if he turned in his homework.

French is on PowerSchool, a “Web-based student information system” used by the North Stonington School District. She scans through Bryan’s different courses, checking his grades or emailing a teacher. It’s 24/7 access to all information concerning her eighth-grade son.                    Sasha Goldstein in

Increasing communication between home and school is a good thing, of course. Kids need to know that parents and teachers are in communication and working together, and I am all for technologies that serve that end. Improvements beyond the standard technologies of email, phoning, notes in backpacks, newsletters and chatting in the parking lot? Sure, let’s see how they work—watching out, of course, for the unintended negative consequences.

And there will be negative consequences.

Parental fear about children’s success can be self-fulfilling, and PowerSchool can be a vehicle for those negative consequences. This technology expresses and feeds what is becoming a cultural neurosis in some circles of affluent American society; i.e. continuing the symbiotic relationship between mother and baby all the way into adulthood, resulting (among other evils) in young people’s “Failure to Launch.”

Of course, parents are anxious about the mistakes their children are making in school, but learning how to handle this anxiety is part of the normal, healthy process of individuation and separation from parents. I predict that PowerSchool will increase the incidence of over-parenting (now that the parental helicopter has better equipment) while having little impact on under-parenting. Focusing on parent involvement in this way distracts educators (parents and teachers alike) from the core question: Whose education is it?

Let’s change our point of view on “parenting” for a second. Here’s a snippet of conversation on the way to school, yesterday:

“Mom, I’m 12 and I don’t need you in my business telling me what to do.”

“I’m 8 and I need more attention!”

The car door slams, two girls stomp down the sidewalk toward the school door on their own, and the mother sighs, “Another morning drop off complete.”

Uri Bronfenbrenner used to say: “The evidence is clear the world over. Children need two things: They need an adult who is rationally involved with them in ever-increasing degrees of complexity, and they need an adult who is irrationally involved with them in activities of ever increasing complexity.” I would add that the quality of that involvement makes all the difference, and that the two adults need to talk to each other. It is a bad sign that PowerSchool has already caused a decline in face-to-face conferences, not a good one.

The key to getting the quality of the involvement right is to be careful about who takes responsibility for what. One of the things I learned from being in schools is that when the adult cares more about something than the child (like homework, say), it absolves the child of responsibility. “Play position” is an important mantra, an antidote to the zeitgeist that tells parents they have to try harder.

A test of whether or not you got the balance of responsibility right is that by the time they are in high school, they are coming to you to ask for guidance, solace, advice, or coaching. Play your cards so that they feel like: “Mom, Dad, sure I am making mistakes, but nothing I can’t handle. Thank you for caring,” You want to have such confidence in them that you feel that if there is no news, it’s good news.

Last summer a mother called the HR department of a large corporation to complain that her son was not being offered enough as a summer intern. After telling the mother that her son was over 18 and that it was illegal to talk to her about his compensation, the HR director called the son to say: “We understand that you feel your compensation is inadequate. If that is true, we withdraw the offer.” (To his credit, the son claimed a misunderstanding, accepted the offer and got mad at his mother for interfering.)

Parents and teachers, let’s keep our eye on the ball: If want our children to launch, we have to take less responsibility for their lives than they do.


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3 thoughts on “Failure to Launch? Stop Parenting and Be a Parent

  1. Rick,

    As always loved your post. This one really resonates because last night I was at a presentation about introducing the college process for my ninth-grade daughter. The presenters were fabulous, and a large part of the message was for people to chill. Of course, some were furiously taking notes. I can see one of the notes being an underline admonition to relax, with a few exclamation points.

  2. The college process for ninth graders!! I will bet that the school is responding to parental demand and didn’t have this meeting because the admin thinks its a good idea to encourage their students (or worse their students’ parents) to view the high school years as nothing more than the process of getting into a “top” college or university. So many good things are happening in elementary education to foster the concept that challenge and failure are not to be feared, and then along comes high school (even the progressive independent and charter ones) where “B” is the new “D,” and only a fool would risk GPA points (and thus college admission) by taking a class in which they might not excel. I’m the mother of a college freshman and two eight-graders (yes, twins) and I’d love to figure out a way to lessen the death grip that the US News and World Report rankings have on the lives of the high schoolers I know.

  3. Our school just sent us an end-of-term notice about grades. It was nice. They said, just because we can give you real time information about your child’s progress, doesn’t mean that we are assessing their learning minute to minute. We are still looking at the whole child, and we hope that parents are too.

    The message seemed to be let’s drive the purpose of this technology not let it drive our pedagogy. I like the message and the technology. It enables my daughter (6th grade) to know that I care how she is doing without my having to ask “what did you get on that test?” Our school also let’s us know about the projects the kids are working on through this technology and that let’s me let my child enjoy her autonomy and while I get to know what is going on…and occasionally ask an informed question.

    Thanks for the great post.

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