"Public School Is Not Supposed to Be Half Home-Schooling."

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Ugh. I don’t want a public school that’s getting better, I want one that’s already good. But of all the possible options—moving, private school, parochial school—the only practical one is home-schooling. And while I’m a huge fan of home-schooling, it would be me doing the teaching. And I just don’t want to do it.

So I’ve comforted myself that we’ll enroll our kids in the getting-better public school and just be really involved parents. We’ll raise money, we’ll do enrichment activities (I always picture “enrichment” as something like “stuffing with butter”), we’ll schlep them to after-school robot camp and combine their bedtime stories with Mandarin flashcards. In other words, we will helicopter. And I realized, as I was considering this, that what I was planning for us was basically a half-public-school, half-home-schooling situation.

Last week Emma-Kate Symons, a writer and mother who’s lived in France and the U.S., posted a piece on Quartz titled “France’s Simple Solution to Curbing Helicopter Parents Makes Life Better for Women.”

To parent my kid in a more “French” way would mean bucking our entire culture all at once, by myself.

This article describes the school day in France, which is longer than the typical school day in the U.S. (running from 8:20 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), doubles as childcare, provides tasty, nutritious lunches, and offers twice-weekly after-school classes and sports. Symons notes that helicopter parenting is rampant in the U.S. and nonexistent in France: French parents are not permitted to have on-call access to their kids’ teachers; they aren’t expected to participate in fundraising or volunteering or meetings during work hours. They are allowed to go to work, knowing that their kids are well cared for, well educated, and well fed. After all, Symons says, “public school is not supposed to be half home-schooling.”

Obviously this resonates with people like me. But I always think, a little bitterly, well, that’s great for France. Pamela Druckerman’s nitty-gritty examination of parenting in France versus the U.S., Bringing Up Bébé, hit bookstores at about the same time I became a parent and started caring about “how” I was raising my kids. (Scare quotes around “how” because there’s precious little active decision-making in “how” you raise your kids. Most of us do what we can in our given circumstances and hope for the best.) Bringing Up Bébé was a fascinating description of raising children in another culture, but as a practical guide it was not especially helpful—to parent my kid in a more “French” way would mean bucking our entire culture all at once, by myself. Just try, for example, to protest the near-daily offering of sweets, junk food, or cupcakes at nursery schools—it’s always someone’s birthday—and see how other parents respond. Or try insisting on a set snack time when your kid’s playmates graze on Goldfish and Cheerios all day long.

Public schools in the U.S. are wildly uneven; the gap between our lowest- and highest-performing students is enormous. The good public schools—in which “good” means “wealthy”—are good precisely because of an involved and affluent parent body. For those of us in the middle or lower classes, zoned for iffy schools, our kids’ educational success relies on our devoting time to raising money, tutoring, and communicating with our kids’ teachers. I mean, look, a third of America’s fourth-graders can’t read at grade level. The problem is not that I’m a helicopter mother. The problem is that something is grossly amiss with our school system.

Symons addresses this: “In structural terms, moms are being conscripted out of work and an existence beyond their maternal dimension. They are then forcibly channeled into a school system starved of funds, teachers, general staff, gardens, play equipment, books and basic supplies. For this we can thank the society-wide and Republican-specific skepticism or downright hatred of quality public education for all.

“Yet why don’t more US citizens consider paying higher taxes to fund better education and childcare instead of taking advantage of moms?”

When the local school is lousy, when the price for not going to college is steep, mothers will do everything they can to ensure their kids’ success.

I don’t know why. It’s an ongoing disappointment that this country has such feeble supports for families and apparently low standards for public education. I can only imagine that the people who don’t want, say, universal, high-quality day care are the people in the eff you, I got mine camp.

Symons suggests that mothers, instead of helicoptering, use their time for their own professional and personal interests, or even to campaign for better childcare and educational opportunities for everyone. This is a fine suggestion, though of course it’s not going to work for people like me, who know that our attention to our kids’ schoolwork is the only thing standing between them and illiteracy or innumeracy. American parents are obviously not going to bow out of managing their kids’ educations without a sudden reversal in the schools’ quality.

The headline “France’s Simple Solution to Curbing Helicopter Parents,” is laughable. Like revamping our schools, child-care system, parental leave policies, and economy—our entire culture—is simple. (I understand the exigencies of clickable headlines, but this is along the lines of “France’s One Weird Trick…”)

And while I do appreciate that we should be noting and talking about what other countries are doing, it’s a little disheartening that even Symons can’t resist taking a swipe at the mothers: “[T]eachers work without the incessant parental input common in the US. Hours spent chatting every afternoon with overbearing moms is not part of the job description.” Casting mothers as “overbearing” or “desperate,” or even “helicoptering”—a pejorative—places a good part of the blame for this problem on mothers—who are responding rationally to uncertain circumstances. When the local school is lousy, when the price for not going to college (or worse, not finishing college) is steep, mothers will do everything they can to ensure their kids’ success. That’s their job.

So, yes, we should all be campaigning for a longer school day, for funding distribution that mitigates the effects of poverty, for social programs that address poverty itself, and for well-trained and well-compensated teachers. But it’s important to stop casting this as a mother problem—”Kids need to learn autonomy and resilience without mommy always hanging around”—because that carries the whiff of “lol high-strung women are so annoying, amirite?” rather than an everyone problem.

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