As a teacher and administrator, I can't tell you how many times I have heard from parents saying something like, "I don't want to be a helicopter parent, but..." or "I want to let my child experience the consequences of her actions, but..." or "I don't mean to be that parent, but..."
The use of this formulation is interesting. Almost always, whatever follows the "but" totally contradicts the first part. A friend and I joked once that most accurate way to translate this would be, "I am now going to acknowledge an important value but will then completely ignore it and do what I want anyway."
That is a bit glib, of course, but there's some truth to it.
I started really noticing this a few years back, when terms like "helicopter parent" first started to come into use, and when there were more and more voices arguing that children need to experience difficulty and disappointment to grow into happy adults.
Essentially, the parent is acknowledging that the request or statement they are about to make is possibly problematic. They acknowledge that there is a cultural problem with helicopter parenting, or that it isn't ideal to cushion and cosset a child, or that parents sometimes make unreasonable requests of schools, etc.
At the same time, they are also trying to say that this particular situation is an exception, that this particular situation requires them to act in a way that might not be otherwise ideal.
To be sure, there are times when specific situations justify the "but," there are times when we need to do something that might not be otherwise ideal. The "but" does a lot of work here, allowing the parent to wave away the first part of the sentence. It's a sort of magic word in a way.
Let me take off my teacher hat now and talk as a parent.
As I became more aware of hearing this in my work as a teacher, I also became more aware of myself saying the same thing as a parent.
And when I said it I was doing exactly the thing I had noticed. I was acknowledging that what I was doing was in conflict with an important value or idea I normally felt was critical.
Part of the reason I did this was that in saying, "I don't want to be x but..." was to prove to myself and others that I was not just an uninformed, unenlightened clod, that I was sophisticated and aware enough to know what the rule was--I just felt that this case warranted an exception. That can be a trap for conscientious parents, because it gives us license to do something we realize is probably not ideal.
Some situations do warrant exceptions, of course. Sometimes, a general rule, imperative, or virtue needs to be suspended in a certain case.
The trick is that if something is an exception, it should probably only happen occasionally.
However, when I started noticing just how often I said it, I realized that it was becoming the rule, not the exception.
I firmly believe that over-parenting is unhealthy for my kids, and that intervening in their lives will have a damaging effect on their future happiness and success. I believe that the challenges and problems they encounter now are critical to helping them develop initiative, courage, strength, resourcefulness and so on. Their challenges are developmentally-appropriate opportunities to gain the resources they will need as an adult.
And yet...believing this ardently, I still find myself tempted to intervene. To ask for exceptions, to use, "but" as a way to give myself a pass.
Once you start intervening and fixing your child's problems, once you start clearing the way, trying to manage the consequences they experience, it can quickly become a habit. Each new and difficult situation your child encounters can quickly become an exception you feel is warranted.
This was true in my case, and I realized that by cushioning I was frequently robbing my child of the chance to grow and learn through struggles and difficulties.
In order to help myself, I came up with a simple rule that has been very helpful and useful to me.
First of all, I have tried to habituate myself to notice when I used this formulation.
Second, when I catch myself saying it, I now change the formulation a bit. Instead of saying, "I don't want to be a helicopter parent, but..." or "I believe that my child should experience the consequences of his actions, but...." I now say "Full stop."
It's a very powerful corrective. "I believe my child should experience the consequences of his actions. Full stop."
"I don't want to be a helicopter parent. Full stop."
I usually add a, "Good. Then don't be."
So now, if I catch myself trying to over-parent or intervene, I say, "I am trying to let my child work out his own challenges. Full stop. Good--that's a good goal, Braden. Keep it up!"
"I don't want to be a snowplow parent. Full stop. Good! Don't be."
Now, to be sure I still sometimes feel that a situation does require my intervention, but this formulation has helped me think about them more carefully. And, when I do feel I need to intervene somehow, I do so thoughtfully, consciously, and carefully. Often my interventions are more minimal than they would have otherwise been. I no longer use the "but" to write a sort of pass.
Now, I say something like, "I appreciate the fact that you are working with my child. I want to support you. I have a question about x. Is it possible we could talk? Or, "I want to support you. Can you help me please understand y?"
Now, I have a sort of an announcement and a request for feedback. Over the years, I have frequently been asked when I will write a book and put all of this in one place. It has taken me a while to figure out a framework or approach that is different than the thousands of other parenting books out there.
I have finally settled on two thematic approaches. I am going to be describe and discuss them both in the near future and will ask for feedback from all of you--which seems the most useful/interesting.
Until then--Happy Thanksgiving, and happy parenting! You've got this.