Crossroads Teacher in National Spotlight for Her ‘Atlantic’ Essay

Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Jessica Lahey, an English, Latin and writing teacher at Crossroads Academy in Lyme, is finding out what it means to be at the center of a 21st-century media blitz. Lahey has been interviewed by Fox News, lined up an interview with NPR, and landed a literary agent. And she’s sending out a book proposal. All in the space of one week.

“I’m trying to come up for air,” Lahey said last week, sounding both exhilarated and a little harried, as in “If it’s Wednesday, it must be Fill-in-Media-Outlet.”

What precipitated the flurry of press is a column Lahey wrote for the Atlantic online titled Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail, in response to a recent study from Queensland University of Technology in Australia. The study described the so-called “helicopter parent” who tries to impose stringent perfection on something that is to a large degree unpredictable and uncontrollable: a child’s development.

The Australian research doesn’t say anything new particularly, given the ink that’s already been spilled on the subject in the publications to which middle and upper-class American parents tend to read closely (see the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Washington Post).

But Lahey’s analysis of how hovering, fretting parents impede a child’s growing independence, and encourage a learned helplessness, has “struck a chord,” she said, judging by the number of comments she’s received on the Atlantic website and on Facebook from other teachers, coaches and principals. The war stories are flooding in.

Lahey has been a teacher for 14 years, and has spent the last five at Crossroads. She also blogs about education for the Atlantic and the New York Times, as well as her own site, Coming of Age in the Middle. “I love writing about the art of teaching,” she said. And like many teachers, she has seen the gamut of parental behavior. “A lot of parents, out of love for their children, don’t want them to experience heartache and disappointment,” Lahey said. “But you have to experience that to be a fully formed human being.”

The image of the controlling parent moving heaven and earth to dictate the future success of a child seems to epitomize something gone awry in the upper echelons of American society. It’s become a cultural meme, the stuff of sitcoms, books, newspaper columns and TV talk shows.

Although one has to be careful about generalization, Lahey said, there is a sense that “we’re raising in a certain sector of our generation a segment of coddled and indulged children.”

Out of respect for the confidentiality between students, parents and teachers, Lahey isn’t specific about some of the more hair-raising examples she’s seen of the overbearing parent.

But she does start her Atlantic column by talking about an incident early in her teaching career when a mother called in to complain. Lahey said she was going to fail the daughter on a paper because she’d plagiarized a large portion of it from the Internet. The mother was infuriated.

Lahey stood her ground. The mother went on to tell her that Lahey was being unfair because it was she, not the daughter, who’d written the paper. Lahey was flabbergasted. She still gave the daughter a zero and made her rewrite the paper, but there was nothing she could do to make the mother account for her actions.

When did this shift happen, and why? Lahey traces it to the late 1980s and early 1990s when there was a confluence of events: the increased fierce competition for spots at colleges, the ramping up of high-stakes testing, the pressure on kids to do well in every arena of their lives. And she spots something else: for those parents who are financially comfortable enough to choose to stay home with their children, “(they) are taking their children on as a job,” Lahey said.

And if some parents view their children as a kind of business to be promoted, schools have to deal with those parents when something isn’t to their liking. So then there are the horror stories about the parents who, Lahey said, lay down the law to schools: “You won’t punish my kid. You will not discipline my child, which certainly renders a school toothless.”

This is precisely the wrong approach, Lahey argued. “Let your children deal with the consequences of what they do. Middle school is the perfect place to fail. Let them fail here, let them take responsibility here. Let school be the place where kids take responsibility for their mistakes and actions,” she said.

She respects students who learn how to advocate for themselves when dealing with their teachers, or who honestly confront errors or misbehavior on their own without calling in Mom and Dad.

Schools and teachers aren’t entirely blameless, she pointed out. Even as parents have inserted themselves more and more into their children’s education and lives, to the extent of “helping” with the homework, teachers’ expectations have also changed. “While we’re careful to point out to parents they’re helping too much, teachers have gotten so used to the fact that there is parent intervention that our expectations have shifted, too.”

The result is that so much hand-holding and hand-wringing often hinders a child’s maturation, rather than encouraging it. “It’s like saying to the kid, I don’t think you’re capable of handling it yourself, you’re not smart enough, you’re not tough enough. We don’t trust them to handle it, we don’t think they’re capable, and that’s the biggest disservice,” Lahey said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.