Sir Anthony Seldon, an educator in the UK, says parents need to work with schools to better serve their kids. (Photo: Daily Mail/Rex/Alamy)
An outgoing headmaster at a UK college is speaking out against over-involved parents who don’t work with schools to promote their children’s education.
In this month’s issue of Insight, the magazine of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses Conference, Sir Anthony Seldon, headmaster of Wellington College, gave an interview about how schools should be preparing students for life after college. In response to a question about what the roles of parents should be, Seldon didn’t mince words, calling parents clueless narcissists who don’t know how to do right by their kids.
“Parents need to be partners from the beginning,” he said. “The expression ‘helicopter parents’ is an excuse for schools to push them away. We need to educate parents about good parenting and work together to educate the child. Preparing for exams is about 25% of what schools are for and the other 75% is helping young people develop intellectually, emotionally, psychologically and artistically, and we need parents to understand their role in that.”
He continued, “Too many parents don’t have a clue what it is to be a good parent. Government and schools need to be clearer about what good parenting means. A poor parent damages their child, doesn’t let them become independent and wants their children to become a mini-me. They shout at the touchlines, they spend all their time at the school play videoing rather than watching the performance. This is a form of parental narcissism. Rather than letting the child be what they want to be they atrophy their child’s sense of development and autonomy.”
Seldon seems to be speaking out against mothers and fathers who hover, trying to mold their kids into who the parents want them to be, rather than supporting the students for who they are. But he is equally harsh on parents who are uninvolved. “If I was Prime Minister I would make everybody vote and all Heads would be able to insist all parents come to parent evenings. I tend to be quite strong with parents,” he says. “They must respect the school and its teachers and are not permitted to speak to them in certain ways.”
Still, Seldon, who is stepping down from Wellington College to become Vice Chancellor at University of Buckingham this fall, points out that educators need to honor students, as well. “On the school’s side, all children need to be respected,” he said, “especially the naughty ones.”
The comments about parental narcissism come after a collection of research has shown that over-parenting, otherwise known as “helicopter parenting,” is detrimental to children, especially those of college age. One study, published last year in the journal Education + Training, found that while parental involvement has a positive effect on children, over-parenting can be detrimental. The difference, they say, is the degree to which parents exhibit certain behaviors. “For example, involved parents might ask their children how they performed on a big exam while helicopter parents might ask their children repeatedly about every assignment,” the studies authors write. “Similarly, involved parents might suggest that their children talk to the professor about a questionable grade, while helicopter parents might call up the professor themselves.”
Similar to Seldon’s opinions, this study found that involved parents are helpful to students, but helicopter parents can have a strong negative effect. “While parental involvement might be the extra boost that students need to build their own confidence and abilities, over-parenting appears to do the converse in creating a sense that one cannot accomplish things socially or in general on one’s own,” the authors wrote.
Jill Bradley-Geist, Assistant Professor of Management at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and one of the authors of the study, says Seldon is certainly on to something. “Parents who do not allow their children any autonomy through their teen and college years might actually be hindering the healthy development of their children’s self-esteem and independence,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “It can be hard for some parents to know where to draw the line between healthy involvement and ‘helicoptering.’”
Despite their destructive behavior, helicopter parents likely have good intentions, says Julie Olson-Buchanan, Professor of Management at California State University, Fresno, and the other author of the study. “I believe parents engage in helicopter parenting because they care so much about their child’s future,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “But by overdoing it, they undermine their child’s development.”
To start, she suggests parents sit down with their children and discuss how much support the kids are comfortable with. “It might be helpful for parents to have an open conversation with their children about what they believe constitutes a healthy and supportive level of involvement versus parental behavior that is more controlling and stifling,” Bradley-Geist says.
And Olson-Buchanan agrees with Seldon that parents should partner with schools. “I do believe that it would be helpful for schools at all levels to be explicit with parents about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in terms of how they interact with teachers and professors and administration,” she says. “For example, at the college level, I believe it would be beneficial to share with parents that it is inappropriate to directly contact a professor to argue about a grade — and yes, this does happen! — as well as micro-manage college students’ homework completion… or check-in too often each day.”
Ultimately, Olson-Buchanan says parents need to stop worrying that by not over-parenting, their kid could fall behind. “Instead of trying to clear the path for your child’s success by removing all potential obstacles, help your child learn how to clear the path for himself or herself,” she says. “Those obstacles are often the very thing that will define your child’s character and help them grow.”