It was the school rocket project that really did it for me. My ten year old trotted to school smugly clutching the rather wonky fruits of her labour over the weekend; a rocket made Blue Peter style from toilet rolls, plenty of double-sided sticky tape and liberal coatings of lurid paint. All her own effort and jolly proud she felt too. Until she reached the playground and her gaze took in the staggeringly professional creations of her peers. Some were crafted out of sheet metal, others wood. Many had working bits of machinery in them to make them move or make realistic sounds. They had portholes and rivets, wings and carefully constructed nose cones. Most looked like they could not only actually fly to the moon, but safely carry their owners and a couple friends with them (and still be back in time for school lunch). In short, they were all made by parents.
I have often lamented the over-involvement of modern parents in their kids' lives but it's not only craft projects that parents are over-involved in. Modern 'project-based' homework is more a reflection of parents' efforts than their kids; I heard one mum recently shout across the playground to her son, 'what did I get in the recycling project'? (she got an A). Parents involve themselves in every aspect of school life, from running in every time their child has a problem, to falling over themselves to be parent helpers on school trips. And it doesn't stop at the school gate; so afraid are we of our kids making mistakes or doing things wrong that we hover over everything they do, like some kind of over-zealous quality control system.
Over-involved parents, or helicopter parents (who are always hovering over their children) are part of the wider issue of over-protective parenting. If we are afraid to let them do their homework on their own, we are doubly afraid to let them play out on their own, or go to the corner shop, or ride their bike or any other number of activities deemed risky by the modern parent. And, in today's competitive and threatening world, who can blame parents for wanting to protect their kids both from harm and from lowered achievement? They need all the help they can get these days, right?
Yet new research suggests that some of the common things parents do to help their children succeed might paradoxically be leading them to under-achievement. The overprotective instincts of modern parents are destroying children's independence, confidence and self-esteem, trapping them in a fearful dependency from which they might never escape.
Research from Norway suggests that children are evolutionarily programmed to be risk takers, because this is how we learned to survive in a pre-helicopter parent era. Children who are allowed to take risks learn to trust their own abilities; it gives them self-confidence and builds resilience, since they learn to make mistakes and deal with them. Parental fear of harm befalling their children is natural, but leads to fearful, nervous children with low self-confidence and self-esteem - children who are afraid to try things and do things for themselves for fear of doing it wrong. They never learn to figure things out for themselves; mum and dad are always there to provide the answer. This applies as much to tree-climbing as it does to homework.
The parents who obtained sheet metal to pound into rocket shapes for their adored offspring's school project did so out of love and because they wanted the best for their child. They knew their efforts would be far superior to their child's and indeed, their creations may have earned their child admiring glances in the playground, but they are not doing their kids any favours in the long-term. These are the same parents who, no doubt, will still be making sandwiches for their 16 year olds, writing job applications for their 18 year olds and collecting dirty washing to wash, iron and send back to their student offspring (along with a month's supply of home-cooked frozen meals). Their kids might be happy with their fully functioning rockets now, but the key thing is that they didn't do it themselves. They didn't learn to make a rocket and wouldn't be able to make one in the future. And what did they learn? That their own efforts are rubbish. Children gain confidence by working hard and mastering whatever it is they seek to accomplish; helicopter parents are squelching this budding confidence by their over-involvement.
So, the next time your child comes home from school tasked to create a Tudor House or a piece of furniture, encourage them do it themselves. The end result might not to be so good - but remember that they are not building a house or a chair, but confidence, self-esteem and independence. And that is the best result of all.
A version of this article first appeared in Mums and Dads Magazine http://www.mums-dads.co.uk/Suggest a correction