Helicopter Mom Comes for Lunch

It happened maybe 20 years ago, but I remember it clearly—because it was so unusual.

I was teaching a middle school band class, and there was a knock on the door. I went to answer—and it was David’s mother, holding a big shopping bag.  I turned to call David to the door, assuming he’d forgotten something at home, and good ol’ stay-at-home Mom was rescuing him.  But she stopped me.

Keeping out of the class’s line of vision in the hall, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small pie. With potholders. “I don’t want David to see me,” she said. “But I was baking this morning, and wanted him to have pie, fresh out of the oven, for lunch.”

I took the pie, gingerly, and she set off down the hallway.  The pie smelled and looked fantastic. I carried it back into the classroom and set it on a bookcase. There were plenty of remarks: How come Mrs. Flanagan got a pie and they were stuck with cafeteria food? Could they have some? Whose mom was sucking up to the teacher?

I explained that it wasn’t for me. And because it would be obvious who’d be eating the pie in ten minutes, I told them it belonged to David—a quiet, cooperative trumpet player. David’s face got beet red, as I settled the class down for the final few minutes of instruction. When the bell rang, he picked up the pie—and the potholders—but waited until everyone was out of the room to leave.  He didn’t look like someone who’d just been given the best school lunch ever. In fact, he looked mortified.

In the teachers’ lounge, my colleagues were discussing another pie delivery, made to David’s sister.  It wasn’t a kindly, delighted conversation. In fact, the other teacher who had taken a secret pie drop-off was expertly mimicking Mom’s tiny, high-pitched voice: You know how pies are best when they’re warm? It’s her favorite kind!

The general—ruthless—conversation was around parents who can’t let their children go to school, damn it, like every other kid, and be unspoiled and un-special for seven hours a day.  Make them a pie at home. Don’t bring it to school. And the same goes for their mittens.

I tended then—and now—to agree. School is, by its nature, a group experience, where we learn more than long division and state capitols. It’s a place where we learn to take turns, take only what we need, wait for others to speak and tough it out when things don’t go our way. There’s a reason why Robert Fulghum made a mint by laying out why everything we need to know is learned in kindergarten.

In 30+ years in the classroom, I’ve met plenty of parents who wanted special favors for their children. Some seemed reasonable, others merely a way to excuse their children or mitigate their child’s very natural and productive struggle with difficult challenges. The parent who frequently runs interference for their child is not doing them any favors, in the long run.

This is, of course, generalizing. Some kids deserve and benefit from a break, or special treatment. These are judgment calls, case by case situations. This is why we want thoughtful and kind people working in schools—to decide whether Johnny needs a hand up or a kick in the pants in his journey toward becoming civilized.

Parent involvement in, and monitoring of, daily life at school, however, has undeniably increased. The ‘choice’ movement—where disgruntled parents can easily choose another (free) school for their child—has enhanced (or exacerbated, take your pick) helicopter parenting.  Don’t like the curriculum or the teacher—or your children’s classmates? Pick another school. Plenty of choices available.

I was stunned to read, in the Atlantic, no less, that schools are trying to decide how to deal with an influx of parents wanting to eat lunch with their children.

What could be wrong with Dad wanting to pop in once a month and chow down on sloppy joes and carrot sticks with his second grader?  School lunches last about 25 minutes, and it would be a treat for most elementary school children to see a parent’s friendly face. It could strengthen the school-home bond. Perhaps even improve behavior in the cafeteria, with a couple of extra adults around.

Then I read the story.

There were the parents who brought pizza for their kid and his friends, leaving other kids envious. The moms who worried about their kids being picky eaters and not getting optimum nutrition. The one who just wanted to know more about what goes in her child’s day:

“You see what people are eating, not eating, see which kids are throwing food, talking too loud, who is sitting by themselves. It’s a chance to poke in on your kids’ day that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t have lunch with them.”

It’s the very definition of helicopter parenting—all about the judging, the disapproval, the social arbitration, the inability to let a child make her own friends and choices. And woe to the school that tries to put brakes and limits on eating lunch with your child, as often as you choose.

There’s a shift happening here, toward individualizing education and a consumerist perspective on a public good. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a school lunch just a school lunch. But the story made me uneasy. Power and control over small things in public schools can lead to power and control over bigger things.  A little pie today, the whole enchilada tomorrow.    school-lunch-830x553