How to be a parental superhero

My mom still remembers the day she found my brother’s housing application to UC Berkeley sitting on the floor of his bedroom.

It was due in three hours.

In the days before the internet (and with my brother somewhere on the water with his crew team), she saw just one option—make the two-hour round trip drive to Berkeley to personally deliver the application for him.

When she told him later that night what she’d done for him, his chagrined, remorseful response said it all: “I’m sorry, Mom.”

Readers of this blog know how often I preach against helicopter parenting where parents are constantly hovering to play equal parts manager, publicist, and personal assistant for their kids. I write often that parents need to train their high school kids for the independence of adult life, and that good parenting should involve a taper period before college when you progressively do less and less for your kids.

But like so many parts of parenting, I recognize (even more so now that I’m a parent myself) that this is often easier said than done, and that not every situation—or every kid—presents with a clear right or wrong course of parenting action.

When the infamous housing application snafu took place, my brother was ranked #1 in his high school class. He rose every morning at 5:30 a.m., took our school’s most demanding course curriculum, rowed for a state championship crew, and routinely stayed up until past midnight to maintain his perfect GPA. This was not a kid whose mother was running his life for him; this was a kid who was totally self-driven, who’d achieved because of his own ambitions, and in the throes of school and sports and college applications, managed to let one item of paperwork get past him.

Had my mom not swooped in and saved the day, what lesson would she have taught him? That one mistake among all that perfection should cost him the chance to live in a dorm as a freshman?

NoDropOffsI recalled this tale from our family lore this week when I read about an all-boys private school in Little Rock that does not allow parents to drop off their kids’ forgotten homework, lunches, and other items mistakenly left behind. Principal Steve Straessle is serious about the policy, as evidenced by the sign placed at the front of the school.

Not surprisingly, the article and the subsequent social media sharing stirred plenty of parental debate in the comments sections, ranging from those who praised the policy to those who found it bordering on abuse.

I don’t take issue with the policy, and I suspect that it actually rankles (and teaches!) the parents far more than it does the kids. Teens are resilient—they won’t experience long-term trauma going one day without a lunch or a lacrosse stick that they left behind.

But I do understand how some parents might feel when they reach the school and see that sign. What if your student doesn’t eat breakfast and will now go to school, then to football practice, without a single morsel of food? Yes, he’ll be fine and this is far from a tragic circumstance. But I understand why his parent might be uneasy.

What if that homework assignment left behind is the difference between a B+ and the A- he’s been working so hard for all semester?

And most importantly, what if the item left behind is not a symptom of a chronic problem, but a rare dropped ball in an increasingly frenzied, pressure-packed life of a motivated, hardworking, good kid?

I think that last question is the key for parents facing the choice of saving the day or letting their student learn his or her lesson.

Are you lending a rare assist to a student with a demonstrated history of independence, a student who’s proven that he’s responsible and ready for college but, like all of us, might occasionally miss something on his ever-increasing to-do list?

Or have these assists become a routine part of what is now daily management, something that you’ve unintentionally taught your student to expect as part of Mom or Dad’s role as a parent?

If you’re in the first camp, rest easy. You’re a good parent who cares enough to step in (and then step right back out) occasionally.

But if you’re in the second camp, I think it’s worth facing some tough facts that you might be offering (or simply forcing) too much assistance, and that your student might be too dependent on you. You’re not a bad person or a bad parent. But you’re also not helping your student learn to navigate his own life. If he doesn’t start learning that lesson before he goes to college, the transition to not having Mom or Dad there to take care of everything will be far more difficult, stressful, and potentially messy.

Superheroes swoop in to occasionally save the day when nobody else can help someone in need. They don’t hover constantly to prevent people from facing any challenge at all.

P.S. Today, my brother is a graduate of Harvard. And my mother no longer hand delivers important documents for him.