Why We Hover- And How to Hover to Win

As kids and parents get into the heart of this school year, we face a dilemma: to hover or not to hover. Biology commands us to safeguard our children from harm. At the same time, a bevy of research and media decry the “over parenting crisis” telling us to let our kids fail. Those same publications, though, point to host of things we should hover about: early childhood nutrition, how coding is the “new math” and our kids need coding camp right now, loss-of-learning over the summer, and the increasing importance of standardized tests. And, as with most things in life, if you have the money, you can buy your way to better health, better curriculum, and better opportunity.

So parents are left with a choice: obey their biology and catch their kids before every fall while turning them into fragile teacups that shatter under the slightest pressure or listen to the experts and let their kids fail while locking them out of a “meritocratic” system in which everyone else is on the equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs. But it's not that simple or stark. Something more fundamental is happening. After all, our parents and grandparents didn’t hover. Parents in other countries don’t hover – at least not as much. So why does this generation of American parents hover?

They get what you negotiate

“You don’t get what you deserve,” an old in-flight magazine ad shouts, “You get what you negotiate.” Some parents everywhere feel some version of this about their kids: they get what we negotiate for them. But again, why do American parents feel more pressure to negotiate on behalf of their kids?

Francis Fukyama, in his book Origins of Political Order and Decay, says special interests have “captured” the American political system. Lobbyists and advocates on both sides of every issue work to control the machinery of the state and society and have in many instances captured and wield them for their own benefit. My dad, a lifelong educator, says, “a school building serves a vast array of interests. Educating kids ranks about fourth on the list.” Employment for teachers and administrators, socio-economic experiments, and babysitting all rank higher than education. Special interests have captured our schools – and I don’t just mean the usual suspects like teachers unions (on the left) or curriculum crusaders (on the right). I mean that through the collective work of many people – including parents – trying to do the right thing, schools have become tools of an increasingly closed meritocracy.

The Economist, recently pointed out the hidden flaw in “America’s hereditary meritocracy”: much of the machinery of success is reserved for those born into it. High-performing parents produce and nurture high-performing kids, layering on good health, good education, and good life-skills, ultimately outrunning those lower down the socio-economic scale long before they even know they’re in the race. When my wife and I lived in Manhattan, one of our friends explained it thus, “To get into the best colleges, you need to have gone to the best high schools, having gone to the best middle schools, having come from the best elementary schools and the best preschools. Before you know it, you’re paying $20,000 a year for finger painting.”

We didn’t want to pay $20,000 for finger paints, so we moved to a suburb of Washington, DC where, instead of paying exorbitant tuition, we pay exorbitant home prices. But even that doesn’t guarantee access to the best our public schools have to offer. Over dinner in my neighbor’s backyard this summer, he bemoaned that our school’s Mathletes program – a competition for kids good at math – no longer takes “walk-ons.” Kids can only apply if they’re already in the gifted math program. What if you don’t test well? What if you’re a late bloomer? Too bad. You’re in fifth grade and you’re already locked out of the system.

That’s why we hover: an innate belief that our kids will get what we negotiate for them. We have to lobby and grab our portion of the meritocracy because we’re panicked the system itself requires us to do it. After learning how much the teachers expect not only from our children but from us as parents I worry whether my wife and I, with our full-time jobs, are up to being “part of our children’s academic team.” While complaining about over-parenting on the one hand, educators require it on the other.

 

If you want a better answer, ask a better question

I don’t have any easy solutions; probably because there aren’t any. But part of the answer lies in better understanding the problem – and it’s not just that parents hover. We hover for a reason: if we don’t our kids might get locked out of the system. So rather than beating ourselves up about the fact that we hover, let’s ask ourselves better questions so we can hover to win:

  • How can you increase your child’s probability of success in the system without weakening their self-reliance? Don’t argue with teachers about assignments or grades. If they fail to turn in an assignment, want an extension or extra help, it’s on them to ask for it. When I had a problem in undergrad my mom made me fight the university bureaucracy on my own because I needed to learn how to work within big systems. How can you encourage from the sidelines without playing the game for them?
  • How can you encourage them to take smart risks early? The stakes increase as you get older. A failing grade in fifth grade means a lot less than a failing grade in tenth grade. Teach them about responsibility, accountability, and diligence as early and as often as possible. Bouncing back from failure is a learned skill in and of itself. How can you show them that they can take responsibility and overcome their failures so they become more resilient?
  • How can you teach them to thrive under pressure? A lot of us think of childhood as an idyllic time that should be free from stress and anxiety. In reality, though, childhood is a transitory condition intended to teach us how to be adults. Stress produces the same physical responses whether we’re managing the finances of a Fortune 500 company or managing the finances of a little league team. The question is not whether we will have those responses, it’s how we perceive and react to them. Will our kids perceive them as debilitating or invigorating? To forge steel, place it under recurring stress – heat and lots of pressure. If kids don’t experience any heat or stress until later in life, they will shatter under the pressure. Kids do what we do, not what we say, so how can you model grace under pressure yourself and place them under increasing stress so they learn how to thrive?

There are obviously much bigger social, economic, and even political questions that could be asked, like how do we lower barriers so more kids enter the meritocracy and how to reduce or eliminate special interests capturing the machinery of state and society? But those are for another time. Right now, I’m worried about how to make sure my kids and yours excel in the system as it is. My hope is that by asking better questions and focusing on how to channel your hovering – because let’s be honest, you’re going to hover – we collectively make better decisions and make our schools better places for learning and practicing the skills that will ultimately make our kids better adults. If you’re going to hover, hover to win.

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