Step-in or step-back?

Felicia Kirk | St Mary's Calne | Summer 2017
As a parent, it is often hard to know when to 'step-in' and help your child and when it is better to 'support from the sidelines'. Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress of St Mary's Calne, offers some advice.
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Let's be clear from the outset: this is not going to be yet another article bemoaning the rise of what used to be called 'pushy parents'. There have been too many of those in recent times – it's no accident that we have so many pejorative terms to choose from now, with subtle gradations in their implied criticism: from 'helicopter parents' who monitor their child's every move through to 'snowplough parents' who remove every obstacle standing between their child and his/her destination.

One of the reasons I'm not going to do this is because it would be two-faced. I'm the headmistress of an independent girls' boarding school and pretty much every parent who sends their daughter to my school is very interested in how they progress and keen to give them every 'advantage' they can. Like most things in life, though, there is a balance to be struck, and that's what I really want to focus on in this article: in real-life, practical terms how can a parent achieve that balance? When is the right time to 'step-in' and when is it better to 'support from the sidelines'?

It's quite easy to forget that this is not a question that affects only parents – schools make these judgements too. I was fascinated to read recently the top characteristics that Google looks for in an interview candidate. In his book, Work Rules, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock, states that the differentiating factors for them are all about skills rather than content: intellectual humility (it's hard to learn if you can't admit that you might be wrong); a strong measure of conscientiousness; comfort with ambiguity (because no-one knows how a business will evolve); and evidence that a person has taken a courageous or interesting path at some point. It's clear to me that a child needs to have a range of different experiences and challenges to develop these kinds of skills, and if adults are always stepping in too soon, it makes it so much more difficult to do so. And that goes for both schools and parents.

There are times, however, when it's appropriate to intervene and of course both parents and schools have a role to play. A key part of getting the overall balance right for the sake of the child is for each of them to make the right judgement as to who should take the lead and at what point. Both schools and parents can pick up problems, so it's absolutely vital that the lines of communication are clear and open in both directions. Of course the question of how to support does not just arise in connection with problem situations: many of the issues around so-called 'helicopter' and 'snowplough' parents are as much about what they do when there is no problem to address. In those instances the judgement is about what kinds of ongoing parental support and involvement is appropriate and what oversteps the mark and becomes counterproductive.

Let's look at a few real-life situations that can arise and see what principles we can draw from them. First, let's take what I call 'dealing with disappointment'. One example many of us will be familiar with is a child that fails to be chosen for a team even though their parents know that they are genuinely keen on the sport. This may well look unfair and the natural reaction can be to jump in and question the decision. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in itself, and schools should welcome a chance to discuss a child's progress and prospects. In an ideal world a good school might well have initiated the discussion themselves.

Where parents sometimes get the balance wrong is when they try to force the outcome rather than have the debate. It's highly unlikely that the school is just being unfair to a child: it could be that, in the context of everything else they do, they just don't have the commitment. And of course there is always the element of competition – often it turns out that children were not quite good enough on the relevant day. Teaching them that the decision was fair, that there is always a next time and to reflect on what they might do differently is a much more valuable outcome in terms of their life skills than trying to force a school's hand despite the evidence.

The second instance comes from the pastoral side of schools and I'll call it 'navigating relationships'. Relationship issues in this area can be some of the most difficult to pick up for a school and, when they do, they also need to make a judgement about when it's right to step in. Good two-way communication with parents at this point can really help, but inevitably there will also be occasions where the first anyone knows is when the child talks to their parents. So what should a supportive parent do? Again it comes back to getting the balance right and working with the school in the most effective way. Most frustrations or worries that children experience in their friendships are temporary and diplomacy, tact, loyalty and trust are important life lessons. By all means monitor the situation and make sure that the school does the same – but try to let the child work through the relationship issue rather than intervene and potentially ruin it for good.

The final example relates to supporting when there is no problem to be solved: to what extent is it reasonable to get involved in a child's academic work? If they have been set some homework or a particular project, ask yourself – is it their work or yours? This will be an issue throughout your child's education, both at prep and senior school, and parents need to remember the boundaries when it comes to getting involved with their child's academic work. To be clear, feedback and praise are always welcome, and a healthy level of knowledge and involvement with a child's progress is great (and something that has taken a real step in the right direction in general in recent years). Good schools recognise this and how parents can often bring a new angle that enhances a child's understanding of a topic.The problem occurs when there is too much of the wrong kind of parental input and it actually threatens the object of the exercise. The experience of setting the direction for, reflecting and steering a project are a huge part of its purpose, so anything that undermines these reduces the value to the child. Striking the right balance in this case is therefore about understanding the nature of the work and supporting it in the most appropriate way.

In conclusion, this is not a call for less parental support or intervention in the guise of an attack on 'helicopter' or 'snowplough' parents. On the contrary, both parents and schools have a duty to support children. The key is to understand what support is actually needed by the child and, where necessary, to intervene at the right time in the right way.

Dr Felicia Kirk is Headmistress of St Mary's Calne.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Attain.

About The Author

Felicia Kirk

Dr Felicia Kirk is the Headmistress of St Mary's Calne, a boarding and day school for girls aged 11 to 18 in Wiltshire. The school encourages ambition, firmly rooted in an understanding of community and the good of others.

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