Child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says children who are ‘helicoptered’ by their parents tend to play up at school to get attention.
Working with a group of primary school teachers recently, letting off steam during the first weeks of the summer holidays, I listened, appalled, as they reeled off their latest nightmare classroom dealings.
But it wasn’t horror stories of pupils jumping on desks or hurling things around that shocked me most. Far worse was the attitude – and behaviour – of the parents. And not those at the less privileged end of the spectrum, either.
No, the wild, unruly children are increasingly likely to be the progeny of so-called “helicopter” parents – those who give intensive, one-on-one attention to their child and pander to their every whim, fuelling a “little emperor” syndrome.
They are ruthlessly ambitious for their child’s future – failing to realise how badly their mollycoddling is preparing them for the compromises of real life.
Don’t believe me? Then listen to this: “My child is a genius – his bad behaviour is an outlet because you don’t challenge him intellectually.” That was the astonishing response of more than one mother confronted by exasperated teachers.
While we’ve long known this hovering parenting style can create children unable to make decisions or exhibit independence, what’s less often discussed is how aggressive and difficult the children of helicopter parents – often middle-class, professional and, to their minds, devoted to their darlings – can be at school.
Why? These children struggle in the classroom because they cannot cope with not being number one. So they play up to try to get the attention they have been raised to believe ought to be all theirs.
Worse still, these otherwise respectable parents refuse to take responsibility for the child’s actions. Behavioural problems, no matter how shocking, are down to teachers.
Mum and Dad needn’t get their hands dirty.
As a child psychologist helping professionals better understand the psychology behind how kids learn, I’m no longer surprised to see teachers frustrated to tears by the disgraceful attitudes of some pupils – and their parents.
Thanks to teachers’ diligence, the majority of children eventually settle into a world where they are no longer the star in their own solar system. But a substantial minority struggle terribly, with catastrophic effects on learning and development.
Sound dramatic? Not when you look at the latest statistics from the Department of Education, which tell us that, last year in England alone, an astonishing 35 children a day were permanently excluded from school.
And these aren’t just unruly teens: just under a fifth of those expelled were at primary school; some were as young as four.
To my mind, this startling increase can, at least partly, be put down to the linking of two facts: among these children, a great many can’t even tie their own shoelaces or recognise when they need to put on their coat.
Simultaneously, a large portion – a third of the 1,145 expelled from primary school last year – get their marching orders after physically assaulting a teacher.
Imagine: little ones so helpless they need assistance to go to the loo and put on their shoes, yet who are utterly unafraid to biff their teacher on the nose.
Here we have children who are not being given the basic life skills to look after themselves throwing their weight around in the classroom and causing mayhem. It’s a toxic combination.
As worrying is the fact that these figures are going up. The number of primary school children expelled has more than doubled over a four-year period. Meanwhile, 6,685 children at state schools in England were permanently excluded in 2015/16, up from 5,795 the year before. It’s all too easy to hide lazy parenting behind claims that your child is a genius, or has unchannelled exuberance. Regardless, one fact remains: no matter how gifted your child, if they can’t concentrate and work alongside their peers, they aren’t going to get very far in the classroom, let alone in life.
Too many of these children have never heard the word ‘no’ levelled at them at home.
Their parents may well be time-poor – perhaps feeling guilty for working long hours – so are loath to play the bad guy. Maybe they’ve bought in a little too enthusiastically to increasingly child-centric attitudes. But the reality is many youngsters misbehaving in class are being brought up with little discipline or boundaries by doting parents. Small wonder they think nothing of defying the authority of other adults.
You might think such children are just plain naughty. But I don’t believe any child is born naughty. In my opinion, bad behaviour, such as the sort I’m talking about, comes from parents.
(To be clear, I’m not talking about children with diagnosable medical conditions that have a direct impact on behaviour and/or learning styles. Schools and parents need additional support to help these children thrive.)
But I often wonder whether helicopter parents realise how damaging their attentions are.
Yes, they may believe they are providing their child with the best start in life – but such an approach can cause a wealth of behaviour problems.
For example, when a child refuses to put on their coat, if their mum or dad carries it round all afternoon ‘just in case’, rather than letting their son or daughter get cold, the child never learns to take responsibility for their bad decision. The idea that someone else will always put things right takes hold in their mind.
And how can a child be expected to behave in the dinner hall when, at home, they’re allowed to get up and down from the table as they please, never finishing a meal? The only difference is, at school, their teacher won’t be there with a chocolate bar when they’re hungry mid-afternoon.
And if a child has always had a parent clearing dangers from their path, instead of letting them take the odd tumble, of course they’ll think it’s OK to run around a classroom. Yet when they trip over a chair, they’ll blame everyone but themselves for the fact they got hurt – because no one thought to move the chair in the first place.
When it’s all spelt out like this, we can start to see why so many employers are complaining that today’s young people – the so-called millennial generation, the first to emerge from an upbringing by helicopter parents – are more unemployable than ever.
Some over-indulged children display their struggle to cope without the attention they’re used to in a different way. They can become withdrawn when they start school, which negatively impacts on their learning and relationships with classmates – and this can be as damaging in the long-term as aggression and misbehaving.
Of course, everything these parents do comes from a place of love. As a mother of two teenagers, I know how tough being a modern parent is. Most of us really are simply doing our best.
But sometimes, a parent’s best efforts are just too much. However honourable their intentions, these overly devoted parents do their offspring no favours, depriving them of the chance to learn the kind of life skills their teachers aren’t paid to impart.
Children need rules, boundaries and opportunities to feel the cold, go hungry and fall down and hurt themselves, so they can learn from their mistakes. If they are deprived of those basic life experiences at home, it makes educating them a far greater challenge for their teachers than it ever need be.
Pretty much just common sense really.