Helicopters, Snowplows, and Hot Potatoes: Parent Involvement in student academics

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Zack Kurtz, Staff Writer

“While we feel that we are more accommodating parents, there is, unfortunately, a certain level of expectation that things need to get done,” Fernando Romero P ‘22 ‘25 said. Fernando and his wife Michelle place some pressure on their children when a timeline needs to be met and expect that their children try their best in whatever they pursue, he said.

Parents have various levels of involvement in their children’s academics. “We run the range from parents who, once they have signed a contract to send their children to school, trust the school to do their best by their child, and then they encourage their child to seek whatever help they might need,” Head of Upper Division (UD) Jessica Levenstein P ‘23 ‘26 said. “On the other end of the spectrum are parents who are deeply involved in every test, quiz, interaction, and are trying to run interference for their children.”

Sometimes, parents can be on one side of that spectrum until they are faced with a situation that they feel deserves more involvement on their part, she said. While the amount of involvement in a child’s academics can differ from parent to parent, all parents have some degree of influence on their child’s academics, Levenstein said.

Helicopter parenting is a style of parenting in which a parent “hovers” inordinately, taking an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children. Sophia Liu (10) describes a helicopter parent as someone who is incredibly overbearing, constantly pressures their child academically, has very high expectations, and is overly involved in their child’s life, she said.

Snowplow parenting is another parenting style in which a parent actually does the work on the student’s behalf and “plows” any obstacles out of their way, Executive Director of College Counseling Cahn Oxelson said.

The least effective form of parent involvement in a student’s academic life is the “hot potato” method, Levenstein said. “Their child has just come out of a test, is super upset, and calls their parent sobbing on the phone,” she said. “The parent immediately takes all that distress, and, like a hot potato, throws it to an adult at the school.”

Parenting styles such as helicopter parenting are more common today than when Marnie Rukin P ‘24 ‘25 ‘28 was growing up, she said. “We are sending our kids to a rigorous school, so you are going to get a subset of parents who are more focused on academics and their children’s performance,” she said. “The parents [today] are really involved and try to make sure that their kids are doing okay academically, socially, and psychologically.”

Helicopter parenting has also grown as a result of how schooling has developed since parents’ respective childhoods, Michelle said. “The intensity is greater. The volume of work is greater. The level of competition is greater,” she said. “No parent wants their kid to fail, but setting them up for success in today’s day and age with all the other external factors is really a much trickier balance.”

There are many different levels to helicopter parenting, Oxelson said. “It’s possible that there’s healthy helicoptering going on, as in parents who are hovering at a fairly high altitude,” he said. “But it’s also possible that their parents are hovering at a very low altitude to the point where it’s actually upsetting the student and not allowing the student to make decisions.”

Fernando and Michelle try not to be helicopter parents because they agree with the school’s philosophy of letting students do their own learning, Fernando said. “You have to struggle a little bit in order to learn the lesson and achieve and grow,” he said. “You don’t know until you try, and you have to fail a little bit in order to succeed to the next level.”

According to the Horace Mann School Family Handbook, parents should not give students inappropriate help with their work and should not, under any circumstances, do work on their child’s behalf. If a student receives help from their parents, the student is expected to give credit to their parents to maintain academic honesty. This policy is the same for students who receive help from a tutor or from the internet.

“We’re looking to make sure that students are doing their own work and different departments describe what that means in slightly different ways,” Levenstein said. “There isn’t a blanket policy about it, there is just a desire for students to be the ones who are doing the learning.”

It is fine for a parent to read over an essay for grammar, but once the parent essentially has “co-ownership” over it, the English Department draws the line, English Department Chair Vernon Wilson said. “Too much help can ultimately have a detrimental effect on your children’s sense of confidence and the development of their critical thinking,” he said. “They begin to believe that only mom, dad, or an older sibling is capable of generating a worthwhile idea.”

According to an anonymous poll conducted by The Record with 149 student respondents, 36.9% of respondents have had their parents read over their papers before they submit them. 

It is hard to know how a parent has been involved in their child’s paper, Wilson said. While some parents may not even look at their child’s paper, others may be involved in every step of the process, he said.

“In order to grow into self-sufficient adults, children need to begin to learn how to solve their own problems,” Levenstein said. If parents are still calling the school on behalf of their children by the time the child is in 10th grade, she and the grade deans try to remind them that their child should have had this conversation with them first, Levenstein said.

Sometimes a parent may have to wait and step back until the child sees the need for their advice or involvement, Director of Counseling and Guidance Dr. Daniel Rothstein wrote. “It always goes better when a student feels the need to seek out advice rather than when they feel it is being imposed on them.”

Jason Caldwell ‘97 P ’28 ’33 tries to give each of his kids independence in the work that they are doing for school, he said. “I’m there more for support and to check that the work has been done.” 

Caldwell formed this opinion on the importance of independence while he was a student at the school, he said. However, he also thinks that collaboration and knowing when to get help is very important. “Making the decision about which is applicable is very important and a skill one learns over time.”

Caldwell’s daughter, who is in sixth grade, is quite independent: he checks in with her consistently to get a sense of what her week looks like, but he does not have a direct hand in her work, he said. If she ever needs help, he and his wife will find her the support she needs, he said. 

Ryan Finlay’s (12) parents support him by finding external resources for his struggles. “In the past I’ve had subjects at school that I’ve really really struggled in,” Ryan Finlay (12) said. “[My parents] saw that and sought me out and asked if I needed a tutor, and sort of coaxed me into admitting to myself that I needed help.”

Whenever Finlay has trouble with something or needs advice, his parents are the first people he goes to for help, he said. “If they notice that I’m really struggling with something or not managing my time wisely, then they are going to seek me out to have a conversation about that.” His parents mainly act as advisors, rather than directly participating in his academic work, he said.

Lynn Egan’s (10) parents are more distanced from their children’s academics. “Of course they support me, but in terms of my work, I mostly do it by myself,” Egan said. “They would like me to do well, but they mainly care about how I feel about my own grades and if I’m happy with them,” she said. As such, Egan mainly feels pressure due to her own values and beliefs, she said.

Chloe Trentalancia’s (11) parents are also distanced from her academics and always remind her that they should be her last resort. They consistently recommend that she utilizes her teachers, friends, and the academic resources that the school provides, she said. After they referred her to the academic center, Academic Center Associate Adam Resheff tutored her, she said.

This approach has allowed Trentalancia to be more independent and appreciate the programs that the school provides, she said. “They set me up with future general life strategies that can help me be independent and know that there’s always something that I can utilize.”

Rukin’s involvement in each of her kids’ academics depends on both the age and personality of the child. “With my sixth grader, I’m incredibly involved especially because he’s a new student, so he’s just learning the ropes and figuring out how to deal with the intensity of the work,” she said. “He does his homework and then if he has a question I look it over, but I just make sure he gets it all done.”

With her ninth grader, James, Rukin tries to remind him about his work and major assessments. However, she is not involved with the schoolwork for her 10th grader, Sophie, at all. “Sophie would not be happy if I was involved,” Rukin said. “I think James and David welcome it because it kind of keeps them on track, so I think it also depends on the personality of the child.”

Being a parent is an incredibly challenging job, so Levenstein does not fault parents for some of their worst moments, she said. “I am inclined to cut parents a lot of slack because it is not an easy gig, and it is not easy to be parents of children who are as ambitious and motivated as Horace Mann students are because you really can tell how much your child wants something.”

Children can also feel when their parents want something for them. Children are extremely sensitive to their parents’ emotional states, Levenstein said. “If a student is already feeling anxious and then the parent ratchets up the anxiety that can’t possibly be helpful for the child.”

Levenstein believes that it is very rare for a child to not want to please their parents. “Even if the parents have never stated explicitly what their expectations are for their children, students don’t want to disappoint their parents.” This desire to please is precisely why parents explicitly stating the grades they expect their child to bring home is destructive, she said.

Sophie Q. Li (10) wants her parents to be proud of her and as such fears disappointing them, she said. “I feel like people here, including me, are so terrified of getting bad grades because they’re terrified of how it will affect their college process and a lot of those fears are instilled in you by your parents.”

Sometimes a parent’s perception of the very best their child can perform does not align with how the student is actually performing in the moment, Dean of the Class of 2024 Stephanie Feigin P’21 said. This misalignment can cause the child to feel pressure, even if the parent has good intentions, she said.

A very small number of parents at the school hold their children to extremely high academic standards and expect their children to come home with certain grades, Levenstein said. If a child brings home a grade that the parent is not satisfied with, the parent could be angry and put more pressure on their child to do better, she said.

Taylor* (11), who chose to remain anonymous because she is worried about her parents’ reactions, has parents who are incredibly hands on and want to know every time she gets grades back. They get angry with her when she does not tell them about a grade, even if she did well on the assessment, she said.

Taylor also has a sibling who is held to very high academic standards by their parents, she said. They have different strengths and weaknesses and each performs better in certain subjects and worse in others. “My sibling and I both take the same course and one of my weaknesses is something that my sibling is excellent at,” Taylor said. “If I get a subpar grade while my sibling performs very well, my parents will say ‘well clearly it is not that the test was too hard because your sibling performed excellently.’”

Parents must learn to understand that their child is trying their best, and that the outcome is what it is, Levenstein said. “I don’t think a fixation on outcomes is a helpful parenting tool, and I also don’t think having a distorted sense of what your child should be getting is helpful for that relationship.”

Liu’s parents are also fairly vigilant about her grades, she said. They consistently ask her about her grades and how she’s doing academically and have “passive aggressively” encouraged her to do what they want her to do and stick with activities even if she doesn’t enjoy them, Liu said.

For example, in eighth grade, Liu wanted to quit travel soccer because she did not think she loved the sport enough to play five times each week, she said. “They wouldn’t let me quit because they thought that it would be good for my college applications.” Liu still plays soccer due to her parents’ wishes, she said.

According to The Record’s poll, approximately 60.8% of students have parents who involve themselves in their child’s extracurricular activity decisions. 

Feigin has noticed that in meetings with students about scheduling, the student may say that their parent is pressuring them to take a specific honors class or continue playing in the orchestra, she said. Feigin wants to make sure that the student is doing what they want to do so that they feel good about their academic experience at the school, she said.

There is nothing wrong with the motivations of parents who are concerned about their child, Levenstein said. “[Calling me] is a very normal reaction for parents to have if they see their child in distress, as they want to try to solve that problem,” she said. “It is always coming from a good place of wanting your child to be happy.”

As a parent herself, Feigin knows that many parents are desperate to be connected to what their kids are doing, she said. “When we do have a parent that seems to be trying to be overly involved, I get it, and we try to help parents figure out the right balance in order to aid both the student and the parent,” she said.

Even when parents pressure their children, they are looking out for them and just want them to put in their best effort, Feigin said. “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a parent who is upset with their kid or is angry about a grade that their kid earned,” she said. “They’re more upset that the kid is upset that they earned a particular grade.” She believes that most often, parents are more concerned about their children’s mental health and feelings rather than the grade itself, she said. 

In Samantha Pruzan’s (10) experience, her parents just want the best for her and want her to succeed in whatever she sets her mind to, she said. However, her parents do put pressure on her. “If they’re stressed about [my academics] it’s because they want me to do better, not because they’re disappointed,” she said. Her parents will put more or less pressure on her based upon what is going on at school, such as when she has a large number of tests or papers.

Pressure is necessary to a certain degree, Li said. The pressure that her parents put on her is essentially one way they show that they care about her academics, she said. “They try not to cause unnecessary stress for me, but sometimes, inevitably, they do, and their pressure does cause a bit of stress.”

Parents are also sometimes unaware of the pressure that they are putting on their child. Rukin’s son, James, has informed her that her academic expectations are a source of stress for him, she said. He told her, “‘If I do poorly on a test, I know you guys will be upset,’” Rukin said. 

Even if they stress their children out, parents are just trying to do what they think is going to be best for their child’s happiness in the long run, Rothstein wrote. “What they miss sometimes is that their worry can end up causing more stress than success.”

While Pruzan’s parents do care about her grades, they pay more attention to how much effort she is putting in and the amount of time that they see her spending on work, she said. If she was getting bad grades due to a lack of effort, that would make them more upset, she said.

Every family has to find a balance between the parents’ and students’ different thinking styles and motivation, Rothstein wrote. “For some students, getting a little ‘push’ from parents at the right moments can be helpful,” he wrote. “For others, anything that intrudes on their self-management is unwelcome. Communication in families —  really listening to one another — is key; otherwise parents and students can keep repeating the same stressful interactions.”

When Rothstein meets with parents about their involvement, he always asks if what they are doing is working, he wrote. “If they indicate that there is a continual tug of war at home over work and grades and everyone is frustrated, it could be time to rethink things.”

Ultimately, Rukin hopes that her kids go into high school and college feeling confident in their ability to handle their work on their own, but understanding that help is available if needed, she said. She does not care what grades they get, just that they try their best. “I hope they feel content and happy and motivated by their academics.”

College applications are a time when parents may become more involved in their children’s academic lives. The college process can be a stressful situation for both parents and students, Feigin said. During this time, students worry about identifying activities that are important to them, completing standardized testing, and writing essays. 

“Parents are stressed in different ways. There’s a whole other level of the applying process: their kid going away, the financial obligations,” she said. “All of these things are other concerns that parents might be feeling that are not necessarily what their kid is feeling, so [both the parent and the child] might be equally stressed.”

When parents call in regards to the college process they are usually hoping to get some confirmation and check that they are not making what they might see as a mistake, Oxelson said. “They’re most interested in making good and thoughtful and sound decisions.”

Michelle and Fernando tried to keep the process very open-ended at the beginning and let their son, Elias Romero (12), lead the exploration, Michelle said. “When we saw he was being interested or swayed by something, we dug a little deeper and we would guide him into the ultimate endgame of ‘where do you want to go to school,’ ‘what do you want to study,’ and ‘what do you want to do after that.’”

That role has evolved into helping manage timelines and deliverables as well as sometimes being a bit more forceful and rigid to ensure that deadlines are met, Michelle said. Children are not always on top of everything and so they have to remind them of what they need to be doing, she said. Other times their role is to help their son pull back and see the bigger picture of the process as a whole, she said.

Fernando feels that he and his wife need to do a little bit of work to help move the process forward, he said. “Time management is a reality that I think all of us as humans need to keep in mind, but especially as teenagers, you’re just learning the value of time management, and this is one of your first major milestones,” Fernando said. “You don’t want to miss a deadline and you don’t want to miss an opportunity to make a first impression.”

Finlay’s parents have given him plenty of advice about college, he said. They are his biggest supporters and helped show him that college admissions goes beyond grades, he said.

His father recounts the stories of his own college admissions process to remind Finlay that everything turns out well in the end. “He always reminds me to not be afraid to go after something when I’m not absolutely sure that I’m going to get it.”

Parents still feel pressure from the college process as they want their child to get in where their child wants to attend school, Oxelson said. Parents only want the best for their children, and the child’s stress and the parent’s stress can compound each other, he said.

Parents might have a desire to control their child’s extracurriculars since they think that it will help their application, Oxelson said. “Over the last 10 years, I have seen a shift where parents are more willing to allow or to encourage their students to pursue their genuine interest as opposed to what the parent might believe strategically is the best course of action.”

When a parent has gone to a specific college, their child can often feel pressure to attend that school, Oxelson said. “I have to cut [parents] some slack, because sometimes they’re not actually issuing any kind of expectation, but the student somehow has manufactured this on some level or feels this on some level.”

In Oxelson’s opinion, students are usually more stressed about the college process than parents are, he said. “[Students] have their own expectations, but they are also feeling the expectations of their parents,” he said. “So they’re feeling expectations on behalf of two different people, and maybe more.” 

Whether it is the college process or academics in general, the current level of parent involvement can always change. “All parents at all times work on separating what they can do for their children and what their children can do for themselves,” Levenstein said. “It’s an ongoing negotiation.”

*Any name with an asterisk represents a student granted anonymity.