No-Fly Zone

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / 4774344sean

With the advent of 4G networks and Wi-Fi, gone are the days of hanging a “gone fishing” sign on the door and unplugging. Today’s parents have new and exciting ways to be involved in their children’s activities. Generally, this is a good thing. More involvement means more working parents get to see a child’s game or performance.

Unfortunately, technology also provides significantly more child access for parents who already tend to be over-involved. This month, I’ll shed a little light on why helicopter parents are the way they are, and share a few tips on how to handle them.

The Best Intentions

As a parent, I get it. Of course my child is the most special little person there is or ever was. I know my daughter is extremely talented, and surely she’ll be the star of any activity she (or we) chooses. Armed with this knowledge, why wouldn’t I expect that every coach, instructor, and administrator would make thinking and talking about her their number-one priority?

Sarcasm aside, for 99 percent of parents, their child is incredibly important. (The 1 percent is an entirely other issue.) In an evolutionary sense, it’s the reason we as a species exist and flourish. Most parents also understand the need to let others teach, coach, and mentor their child. Unfortunately, some parents feel compelled to insert themselves into everything their child does. While parents may see this approach as appropriate involvement, sincere advocating for the child, or just wanting to be supportive, they become a distraction for the child, the surrogate caregiver, and other participants in the activity.

An example from my days as a sports coordinator immediately comes to mind. I’ll call the parent Ms. H, the mother of a 5-year-old in one of the learn-to-play basketball camps. She believed her son was the rebirth of Michael Jordan. She would constantly ask questions or offer suggestions regarding her son—ignoring the fact that I had 14 other children to attend to. At that time I didn’t know how to handle her, so I just did my best to appease her. Knowing what I know now, there are actions I could have taken to minimize the time and energy I lost.

Ground School

Anyone who has dealt with a helicopter parent knows it can be an all-encompassing affair. But other problems can arise when parents hover.

Let’s use the analogy of the problem of texting and driving. When you or your staff members are thinking about, talking to, or otherwise engaged with a parent, your attention is no longer on the program and its participants, so a potential teachable moment is lost. We humans can only attend to so many things at one time. Worse still is the possibility that a parent who monopolizes your attention creates a dangerous situation for their child. On-duty adult leaders should have a singular focus: children. While I was busy addressing Ms. H’s barrage of questions, I’m sure I missed opportunities to coach the other children. Fortunately, there wasn’t an accident or injury, but the risk was real.

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / creatista

A second significant issue regarding parents who become too involved is that the child begins to see those behaviors as acceptable. We all learn by watching others, and the more status a person has, and PR leaders and parents have a lot, so children are more likely to emulate that behavior. Youth-development professionals must recognize that what we model, or allow to be modeled, will be what our participants take away from our programs. The children who observed Ms. H’s actions may have learned about playing basketball, but, unfortunately, they also learned that it’s acceptable to interrupt, disrupt, and question program leaders at every turn.

So, what can park and rec leaders do to keep helicopter parents from hovering too closely to their program? And how do they coach staying at a distance without driving parents away or creating unnecessary conflicts?  While every parent and situation is different, these few tips should help.

Make It Clear Who Is Flying

Just as I wouldn’t want any person off the street flying my plane, operating on my knee, or doing my taxes, parents need to understand that the coach is the professional running the program. This important point can be communicated in several ways. Presenting yourself, your staff, and your programs as professional is an effective and necessary start. Staff shirts, name badges, and a well-maintained facility—no matter what the budget—send a message that this department is your domain. To really drive the point home, you can highlight each adult leader’s background, skills, and training as related to roles and responsibilities. Online or in print, these laudatory bios put the staff in the spotlight. They were chosen to teach, coach, or lead so parents can relax and enjoy the activity. Another effective strategy is to provide details about the specific skills the staff will teach. And, if you describe a significant plan to develop the whole child, it becomes clear to parents that you are the youth-development expert.

Control Tower Communication 101

To take the aviation metaphor even further, there is constant two-way communication between the control tower (you and the staff) and the aircraft in the sky (parents and children). While this communication serves several purposes, most importantly it ensures there are no collisions so everyone gets where they need to be in an orderly and safe manner. In this way there is an organizational system for who talks when, how people speak to each other, and what is appropriate “chatter.” Your job is to establish a similar system for your participants. Clarify the partnership, and parents will act more like, well, partners.

Because effective communication is a two-way street, you must create whatever system and use whatever technology you think is best. However, if complete information (who, what, where, when, how, cost, etc.) is not given and opportunities for questions and feedback are not provided, you will be fighting a losing battle. Post that information on a website or social-networking sites for the convenience of parents.

You will also need to provide appropriate and frequent opportunities for parents to ask questions or provide feedback and comments. Online surveys and social networks work well because parents can access them from phones and other devices 24/7. Youth programming is a relationship business, and sometimes nothing can be more effective than a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Having office hours a few times a week will provide parents an established time to ask questions or discuss their child. Parents are key stakeholders in our programs,  but boundaries must be clear for everyone’s sanity and safety.

Clipping Their Wings

Despite all of these efforts, some parents will continue to be overly involved in your programs. When this occurs, you have two choices: The first practice (and, unfortunately, the most common one) is to let it happen. While this approach is clearly problematic and unsettling, many a park and rec leader who fears conflict may do or say nothing to helicopter parents. This non-action enables the parents, and teaches the children that the behavior they are witnessing is acceptable. The child may think that the adult leader can’t do this job without Mom and Dad. Or Mom and Dad can’t live without the child. Neither is true. Neither is healthy.

The second (admittedly the tougher approach) is to have an honest conversation with the parents. Sometimes, they may not even be aware they are overly involved. You might be surprised how receptive or even grateful they are when you reassure them that, although their child is very important, there are other children whom you are equally obligated to care for. By clarifying program objectives, staff qualifications, supervisory policies, and a plan to educate the whole child, you will go far in easing most concerns.

Let Your Programs Soar

Ultimately, the best way to reassure parents and form partnerships with enough air space is to showcase your talents. If you create top-tier programs, parents will rave about theirchild’s experiences. You’ll earn the credibility necessary for parents to trust your practices. Focus on quality and boundaries and you’ll have clear skies throughout the year.

Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology and a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at zach@youthdevelopmentconsulting.com .