"I call them the hovercraft," says Josepha Anders,* the principal of a San Francisco elementary school. "They're the parents who have to know everything that happens at school, have to know how their child feels at each point. They question everything—from the curriculum to what's served in the cafeteria—and expect to have input on everything. With these parents," she sighs, "there are no short conversations."
We all love our kids. We all want them to do well, to make friends, to enjoy school and their extracurricular activities. And, to be sure, much parental involvement is good—and necessary. Because of staff and budget cutbacks, most schools truly need parents' help in areas such as fund-raising, reading enrichment, even stints in the lunchroom and on the playground.
But these days, a few parents—educators put the number at about five percent—are taking the suggestion that they become active in their children's schools to a new extreme.
When it comes to their kids' lives, overinvolved parents refuse to let the chips fall where they may. In fact, the chips often never even hit the ground. And these folks can have a disturbingly large impact on everyone who touches their child's life. "A teacher can spend so much time and energy responding to one or two parents that it takes away from the rest of the class," says Ann E. LaForge, author of What Really Happens in School: A Guide to Your Child's Emotional, Social and Intellectual Development and parent—involvement coordinator for the Kew-Forest School in Forest Hills, NY.
The irony of overinvolvement is that it often backfires and hurts the very person it's meant to help: the child. "I see parents not wanting their youngster to experience failure on any level -- even forgetting a library book," says Ann Ritter, a kindergarten teacher at Harding Academy, a private elementary school in Nashville. "But overinvolved parents are actually depriving their children of independence and the ability to take care of themselves." Beyond that, "most of these parents think they're helping, but the kid feels he's flawed, since he obviously needs so much direction and assistance," says Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap.
If we're being honest, we have to admit that we've all had our overbearing moments. But brace yourself for our Hall-of-Shame moms and dads, who really went beyond the call of duty.
"My daughter Jessica goes to school with a sixth-grade boy whose mother actually brings him a whole, hot pizza for lunch on a weekly basis. She brings the pie to the lunchroom, and she also hand-delivers a submarine sandwich once a week. It's not as if he forgets his lunch; she just works her life around getting this pizza to him -- and it's HOT! The school cafeteria already offers hamburgers, salads, even sushi—you name it. My daughter thinks it's preposterous." —E.T.; Nashville
Cash for the Coach?
"Four days a week after school, my daughter Amy plays tennis. One day, she came home and told me, 'Every time we go to the deli for a snack, Oscar, the coach, pays with hundred-dollar bills.' Hmm, I thought. A few days later, Amy said that when the father of another girl in the tennis clinic shows up, he pays for the sixty-dollar class with a hundred-dollar bill and tells Oscar to keep the change. So that's where all the hundreds came from. She also noticed that this girl's father drops off pro football tickets, warm-up suits, and other 'gifts' to the coach. It became clear that this dad is bribing Oscar to spend extra time and energy at the clinic with his kid—which the coach does!" —S.C.; Clearwater, FL
Put It on Ice
"The mother of a goalie on my son's hockey team is out of control. Her ten-year-old boy is an adequate player, not a superstar, and she's always at the rink, acting as if she's the assistant coach. This woman is in her kid's face all the time. She puts on her figure skates during his practice sessions and tries to shoot goals off him—right in front of the real coaches and the other kids on the team. Under their breath, the other parents say, 'Get a life.' Whenever someone scores a goal off her son during a game, she jumps up and screams from the stands, 'It's okay, sweetie; it wasn't your fault!' I want to buy her a T-shirt that reads 'Do They Ever Shut Up on Your Planet?' She needs it." —L.B.; Charleston, WV
Out of Bounds
"A parent came to the school playground during recess and spoke to someone else's kid about his behavior toward her child—with playground aides and teachers present. Can you imagine your kid hearing 'I didn't appreciate that you held the door shut on Hilary' from a classmate's parent? Or your child coming home and saying, 'Ian's mom yelled at me on the playground today'? It's hard to believe, but some folks just don't see the boundary." —School administrator; San Antonio
"There are two moms who are at my sons' elementary school every day; I see them when I drop off and pick up my kids. They do errands for the teachers—copying, preparing flyers, readying projects to go home with the children. They sign up first for every class trip so no other parent gets to go, and they handle all the class parties. One day, I overheard them talking in the hall about how much money various people had contributed to the annual school fund-raiser. 'So-and-so only gave $500, and he really is in a position to donate a lot more,' said one. She was at school so often she must have seen some confidential information, then felt it was incumbent upon her to share it." —M.T.; Louisville, KY
"One mother I know has a nine-year-old son named Brad, and she acts more like his agent than his parent. She e-mails his teacher every week, 'just to keep Ms. So-and-So posted as to what Brad's up to,' she once told me. At last year's science fair, Brad's project—measuring the tension in different bridge designs—was clearly the work of an adult. There the mom stood, beaming proudly behind her son and 'his' project. It should be noted that none of the other parents were anywhere near their kids' projects." —M.L.; Prescott, Arizona
"When my children were in first grade, their elementary school decided to stage a production of Rumpelstiltskin. At the tryouts, all the parents and kids were told what the rehearsal schedule would be and that no lateness or early departures would be tolerated. One mom, whose daughter had been in several area productions, always arrived late and left early for other commitments. She simply expected her child to be given the lead. When she wasn't, the mother called the head teacher at home at ten p.m. and launched into a "how dare you" lecture, threatening to pull her daughter from the play, which she did indeed wind up doing." —C.C.; Westport, Connecticut
Missing the Point
"There was an overweight girl in my eleven-year-old daughter's ballet class, and this child was the worst one in the group, in part because her body didn't move easily in the more advanced positions. Her mother had the body and carriage of a former dancer, but it was very clear that this child was not meant to follow in her footsteps. In fact, the kid didn't even seem to like ballet. But that didn't stop the mother, who compared herself with her daughter all the time, saying, for example, 'She has the same kind of feet I have.' The mom was always telling the teacher, 'You're not pushing her enough,' or asking, 'Could you come with us the next time she needs pointe shoes, so we know exactly how they should fit?' Let's just say this did not endear her to the rest of the parents." —S.K.; Portland, OR
"A good friend of mine wants maximum involvement in all of her kids' activities, including school. Her seventh-grader's science teacher told the class that they had to put their names and dates on every paper or risk getting a zero on the work. Well, sure enough, my friend's son forgot to put his name on a quiz. The mom's response was to haul her husband in to meet with the teacher and tell her that her son wasn't about to get a zero because of some arbitrary rule. I can't imagine what my friend thought her actions were going to accomplish, except to show her son that some rules don't apply to everyone." —C.S.; Erie, PA
Louise Tutelian is a writer, editor and mom of three who lives in Westchester County, NY.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.