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ASK ALICE — Advice for All

Helicoptering Parent No More

Dear Alice,

I am writing about my 15-year-old daughter who has just entered ninth grade. This is a very tense time for my husband and me. We know that if she is an excellent student, she will have a better chance of being accepted into a top university, which in turn will help her succeed at whatever career she chooses. Our daughter is also very anxious about school, since she understands that her high school grades are important for college acceptance.

Over the years I have always helped our daughter with her homework — reading and editing her papers, quizzing her before tests, and reminding her about assignments. I even wake her for school each day. Doing this has worked since she has done well at school. My husband, however, is troubled by my hands-on approach. He says I am teaching her to be dependent on me, and that she is not learning to take responsibility for her schoolwork. But letting go of my “job” to be the best parent I can be feels wrong.

My husband and seek your advice about the best strategy going forward.

— Anxious Mom

<Dear Anxious Mom>,

As much as you want to help your daughter, being so involved in her schoolwork is not ultimately helpful to her; in fact, it is more likely to be harmful. In the short term she is doing well, but she is not learning to be responsible for herself when you do so much for her. You need to substantially reduce your involvement so that she can develop and recognize her own capabilities. If you don’t change your approach now, what is your plan once your daughter is at college?

Tell your daughter that you are no longer going to be as involved in her schoolwork, and explain why, so that she does not feel abandoned by you. Encourage her to share any concerns this raises. Let her know you will be available, but you trust that she can develop her own ability to handle everything.

She may need reassurance that you will help her problem-solve if she is struggling with her coursework. Alert her to the possibility that initially she may not do as well as she has done in the past, but you believe she will develop the skills to handle things on her own. Initially, she may feel betrayed that you are no longer involved in every aspect of her school performance. Explain that you and her father have thought this through and recognize she is highly capable and deserves the opportunity to show that she can thrive without your constant oversight.

Her friends are very likely to be experiencing school as a huge pressure as well. This will add to the difficulties for you all since she will have to deal with the influence of her peers, a powerful force. She will need your empathy as she struggles through these challenges. Your continuing to emotionally support her and be her cheerleader in spite of what she hears from her friends may help her begin to think of her school experience differently, with less anxiety about the college acceptance process.

I also want to respond to something else you wrote: your belief that your daughter has to be accepted into a top college in order to be successful. That is not true. Success can be measured in many different ways. Financial success is one kind. A deeply rewarding career that gives your daughter joy is the ultimate success. I hope that you and your husband have had this focus in your own careers. Parents can be wonderful role models for their children. Talk with your daughter about what you have learned over the years that you wish you had understood earlier. Your openness will go a long way in her trusting your wisdom.

Don’t forget that even if your daughter struggles, many people are late-bloomers who begin to develop their strengths once they get to college or after they’ve graduated. Many students who were not initially accepted by a more competitive college transfer as they develop greater learning strategies and their grades improve. Some of the world’s most successful people never went to college at all.

Every successful person acknowledges some failures along the way, and many see their failures as their greatest opportunities for learning. Remember, life is not a sprint but a long-distance run.

— Alice