Guest Blogger–A College Teacher Says, “We Hold Their Hands Too Much”

Today’s guest blogger, K, has been teaching science at a small independent college for over a decade. She spends her leisure time learning from her three young boys. You can read more of her random thoughts at her blog: raisingthewreckingcrew.

We Hold Their Hands Too Much
by K, a College Teacher

Having your teen carry a cell phone is a good idea for many reasons. But, I would argue, it is also a bad idea for those same reasons. If your teenager gets a flat tire, they should be able to fix it without calling daddy. If they find themselves alone at home and hungry, they should be able to feed themselves without calling a parent. This topic is covered very nicely by Lenore Skenazy over at freerangekids.

You may think that I exaggerate, but many college students can scarcely survive a day without having their parents run interference for them. For example, I teach a study abroad course in the Caribbean. The charter flights operate on Caribbean time: Planes have been late, rescheduled, cancelled, and we were once told that our flight didn’t even exist. If you travel a lot, this probably sounds familiar. When it happens to you, you go into problem-solving mode, right? You stay calm and kind, but insistent. You figure it out. What has been fascinating is some of my students’ reactions. I have seen them cry, throw up their hands and say “we’ll never get to the beach”, and call mommy and daddy.

They also call mom and dad for fairly routine situations. When I had a van
break down on a trip, one students starting crying, saying, “now we’ll never get home”, and, again, called mommy and daddy. By the time I had arranged to tow the broken van and had ordered a rental replacement, I had several parents call my cell phone to make sure that little Jimmy or Jane was okay. In some cases, it isn’t even a problem that prompts the need to call their parents. Recently, a student was on the verge of tears because there wasn’t cell phone coverage at our remote location. She said, “I have to talk to my parents every day, otherwise they worry.” Does a young adult really have to report to mom and dad that she has survived another harrowing day in college? Another child called mommy for an hour-long chat every single day of her year abroad in Japan.

Anyone who has finished high school should know how to cook a meal, do their own laundry, read a map, and fix a flat. They should be able to cope with life’s routine challenges without requiring advice. I find it disconcerting that a twenty year-old woman told me she was frightened about flying a commercial airline without a “grown-up” to help her find the gate (true story). How can they be expected to get a job, pay their bills and contribute to society if they can’t help themselves through the airport? Eighteen year-old “children” are serving our country in war zones: We should expect more of the ones who stay home – they can handle it.

As much as students are accustomed to mommy and daddy holding their hands through every routine bump and bruise in daily life, they are used to teachers holding their hands through every academic challenge. Each assignment is expected to include a laundry list of expected content, page limits, citation expectations (down to precise numbers and acceptable sources), and instructions on how they should introduce and conclude their work. Assignments that should be outlets for creative and innovative thinking and problem solving become big fill-in-the-blank worksheets. These assignments become hopelessly tedious, but they are so easy that we can have students do more of them. More is better, right?

It wasn’t always this way. While we have needlessly increased the volume of written work, we have dumbed-down our expectations. In literature courses, my father (in the 1950’s) always had one weekly writing assignment. The assignment never varied – he was to write an essay on “some facet of this week’s reading that you found interesting.” Nothing more needed to be said. By the time I was in school (in the 1980’s), the assignment had been fine-tuned to one broad question about the specific work that we should address. Apparently, we have continued to add specificity to the assignments until they have become meaningless. While I don’t really advocate leaping back to “write about something interesting,” I propose that we support intellectual development by giving fewer, but more meaningful, assignments. We should only assign work that has defined learning goals and requires students to demonstrate mastery of content or independent thought.

Teaching requires putting students into situations that they can only escape by thinking. This is true whether we are teaching life lessons or academic ones.

16 thoughts on “Guest Blogger–A College Teacher Says, “We Hold Their Hands Too Much”

  1. K, I loved your post and completely agree with you. I have a lot to say on his subject (my daughter’s eighteen year old friend told us she is not permitted to ride the metro bus to our house, a ten minute trip!) but I am consumed by work and have made a vow to stay off my favorite blogs and message boards today. So far, the internet lure is winning. Kids, don’t read that! We want to set a good example! After this, I’m going to employ strong discipline and tackle my stack of work.

    K, wanted to comment on just this today and the rest later: “Each assignment is expected to include a laundry list of expected content, page limits, citation expectations (down to precise numbers and acceptable sources), and instructions on how they should introduce and conclude their work. Assignments that should be outlets for creative and innovative thinking and problem solving become big fill-in-the-blank worksheets.”

    K, I will tell you this over-direction drives my daughter crazy. She’s visual spatial and if anyone has a right brain dominant kid, you’ll know what I mean. They thrive on complex, figuring it out themselves, material and every English project and report reduced her to tears this year.

    My daughter attends a math/science/technology magnet. She was torn about whether to take AP History or not. She wanted the challenge but didn’t want to be even more overwhelmed.

    Because all courses at this school are either honors, AP or post AP, the course was guaranteed to still be challenging. The teacher over-directed and all I could surmise is she thought (correctly) that this class would attract more of the science/math/tech nerdy boys (how stereotypical, huh? My daughter is that tech nerd) who wouldn’t call English their favorite subject, although my daughter is very strong in English.

    Yes, we know that many math/science whizzes are completely lost when it comes to writing but why can’t these assignments be tailored? And yes, I know, teachers have enough to do, but obviously not all kids in that class are the same. Just just needed an AP respite. She’d spoken to the teacher about her difficulty when there are too many directions but the teacher brushed off her concerns.

    We think the teacher must have thought the kids would be lost without step by step directions. My daughter, though, found the endless directions stifling and constraining. She would tell us she fretted she wouldn’t include all the points so that her writing could not flow freely. When she tried the free flow with vivid descriptive imagery and alliteration, she got a reduced grade becuase she had not followed all the directions.

    At least those “fill in the blank worksheets’ were held to a minimum. Those are even more the kiss of death for a visual spatial learner who likes to tackle the big picture, not proceed sequentially. She is a whole to part learner.

    But a history writing project (it’s a combined English/history team) got reduced to a set of dreary fill in the blank worksheets and my heart sunk because she loves to write. And that’s always the conundrum. I don’t want her taking all APs (we are very judicious about APs, and she takes less than her peers because cramming till 3am is not my idea of a solid education) and I still wonder because when I was young, we did high school in high school and college in college. We don’t want her overloaded but we also don’t want her sweating through tedium. I hate the school choices we are confronted with.

    Oh, Washington Post’s Jay Mathews’ dreaded “Challenge Index” will be hitting the newsstands any day now (Newsweek). His new shtick is lauding low-scoring schools that are now requiring every single student to take at least one AP. Mathews says it will prepare them for the torture of college later. Yes, he said that. My daughter read his preview in the Post yesterday and I hastened to tell her that we don’t think of higher education as “torture” in our family.

    These schools are pushing every single kid to take an AP, whether they are ready or not, whether they can handle it or not. They’re doing it to really challenge and motivate their students, right? Jay Mathews says so. If enough students take the AP exams, the school, no matter how “low achieving,” no matter how many kids fail those exams, will make Mathews’ top high school list. You don’t think getting on that list is behind this push, do you now?


  2. Correction: I wrote “And yes, I know, teachers have enough to do, but obviously not all kids in that class are the same. Just just needed an AP respite.”

    Remove that first Just. Meant to write, SOME just needed an AP respite.

    You think I’d catch these mistakes. I just read a humorous comment on another blog where the writer says, I could proof it 42 times and STILL find a mistake. I only proofed once.


  3. I largely agree with you, but like with many things talking about general trends in older children and parenting, there’s no consideration for the abused teen.

    My mom got a cell phone when I was 10 and I got one when I was 16, and both made my life easier. At 10 a friend’s mom took us to the wrong movie theater and I had no way of telling my mother this until we’d been waiting for her for over an hour. Because my mother is insane, I was grounded for a week over that and probably burned with a cigarette a few times. She was VERY VERY angry at me for not contacting her, when I had no way to do so.

    At 16 I and some friends went to a teacher’s house and on the way back we got lost. I was able to call my mother to say “hey, we took a wrong turn, I’ll be home asap” and avoided another screaming fest at home.

    As a teen, in general, not being in contact with my mother was very very distressing because I knew that if I didn’t keep her posted about every 2 minute delay (literally) I’d be in serious trouble. I was sleep deprived, underfed, depressed, and extremely stressed, so yes I would cry. I’m sure my teachers thought I was a basket case (not that a single one helped) and that I was too attached to my mother; who I haven’t seen since 3 days before I graduated high school (7 years now).

    While not all helicopter parents are abusive, abusive parents can appear like helicopter ones.

    And some college programs still avoid specificity. I graduated with a degree in history from a big 10 school 2 years ago, and my average assignment was, literally, “write a paper x-y pages long, use Chicago citation style.” That’s it. I came up with some great work that way, some classmates used it as an easy way out, but overall my professors avoided specificity as much as possible.


  4. Ashley, I’m so so sorry about your difficult teen years with such a controlling angry mother. I’m hoping you can reconnect with her at some later point and get some answers but I respect and support your decision to keep your distance now while you try to build a life for yourself.

    Congratulations for getting into a good college and doing well despite your tough upbringing. I wish you all the best.


  5. While not all helicopter parents are abusive, abusive parents can appear like helicopter ones.


    Oh, I have seen this. I’m not going to give details because I might be readily indentifiable. Suffice it to say I know a mom who appears on the outside to be a very devoted involved mother. Truthfully, she is unbearably controlling and pushes her children to unrealistic heights. She ignores their stress, depression, anxiety and sleep deprivation and is obsessed with grades, accolades, awards, trophies. Her children always have be Numero Uno. No matter how great the cost.

    On the other hand, this describes a whole bunch of moms in my high octane, affluent, speeded up county. Just that one takes it to unusual extremes.

    Even sane parents are caught in the shuffle. It’s not like we are raising our children to be slackers, we want to inspire them, we like their motivation and zeal. But balance is key.I love this title of a lecture in my area: “How to Reach without Straining.” I like to say, how to reach without pulling a muscle.


  6. I agree that teaching resiliency and overcoming obstacles is important to
    building healthy self esteem in kids, but K seems to think that everyone
    comes to the table with equal abilities. For example,
    “Does a young adult really have to report to mom and dad that she has
    survived another harrowing day in college? Another child called mommy for an
    hour-long chat every single day of her year abroad in Japan.”

    Perhaps that young adult does need that. Do we really need to judge it?
    What is inherently wrong with it? If you were the parent of that child
    would you really say, “don’t call”. There are plenty of cultures where
    this sort of connection would be highly cherished.

    Another example,
    “Each assignment is expected to include a laundry list of expected content,
    page limits, citation expectations (down to precise numbers and acceptable
    sources), and instructions on how they should introduce and conclude their
    work. Assignments that should be outlets for creative and innovative
    thinking and problem solving become big fill-in-the-blank worksheets.”

    Well coming from a working class background where discussing the topic of
    the day was not part of dinner conversation, as a young adult I would have
    found this laundry list extremely helpful. It took me a long time to
    figure out that just opining about something is not really scholarly. So
    much of my work in the beginning was either not backed up or simply plagiarized because that was considered acceptable in my working class high school. At least we were writing. I also agree that for some type of learners this list of expectations is useful. There are multiple
    intelligences and some kids have an easier time with some things while others need more scaffolding…..


  7. Maybe the ‘laundry list’ guidelines could be optional–pick them up on your way out the door if you feel like you need more direction, if you’re good with just “x-y pages, Chicago citation,” don’t bother. Then let the teacher know which kind you wrote when you turn in your essay/reflection/project. That way kids like yours, Homeworkblues, might not feel constrained and forced to jump through lots of specificity hoops, and kids like you were, Anonymous, might have access to the scaffolding they need…
    Just a thought?


  8. Sophmore, junior, precisely! That is exactly the point I made. Again, we suspect the teacher thinks most of the class is made up of math/science whizzes who are completely lost in English, hence the over-direction. But this is the first year the English/history segment offered a non-AP history version and students were encouraged not to overload on APs. There are also kids in that class who are extremely talented in reading, writing and vocabulary, they just needed an AP respite.

    Differentiation is hard for a teacher but couldn’t it be done with a minimum of hassle? Why not? These are bright kids. Have two assignments and give them a choice. Absolutely, the directions should be for the kids who really need that hand holding with an alternate assignment that has a greater overview tailored to those visual spatial learners who are more conceptual than sequential.

    But as told, my daughter tried to talk to the teacher, politely, about her concerns and she walked away feeling as if she was a round hole being forced to squeeze into that square peg. One size fits all.


  9. The issue of helicopter parents (excluding abusive parents) is a frustration universities deal with on a daily basis. While I would never fault a student for wanting daily contact with her or his parents, I fail to see any legitimate reason why any student would need a parent to fill out application forms. When I first went to enroll in college at the age of 17, my mother went with me, but insisted I do all the question asking and all the filling out of forms. She was there for support and assistance if I truly needed it, but she made me do it. And I am forever grateful to her for that. If you can’t fill out your own form, you aren’t going to pass basic English composition courses. Beyond that, FERPA forbids us to release or even discuss certain information, such as grades, transcripts etc, to any parent without written consent of the student. (We didn’t make that law, so please don’t yell while you insist that since you are paying your child’s tuition you are therefore entitled to their records.)

    “laundry list of expected content”
    I’m a fan of rubrics myself. They serve a dual purpose of protecting both the student and instructor. As a student (with a math and science background) I prefer knowing exactly what is expected of me. Subjective assignments add stress for me. As an instructor, rubrics make assignments easier to grade. It also protects me from being accused of preferential treatment when being subjective. Rubrics show that I required the same from each student. I realize this can and does stifle creativity but you can build creativity and critical thought into your rubric (which experts in the education field encourage) but this leads to subjectivity. This is difficult to grade/assess/judge. If you make the rubric optional, then how do you grade? You can’t grade each student differently, they must all be held to the same standards. If I give an option to forgo the rubric, and write “creatively”, what happens if the student believes he or she was creative but I disagree? The student has no recourse. The instructors opinion (because that’s what subjectivity is, an opinion) is what matters. Rubrics can and should protect students from this. (Don’t let me get started on the issue of using tests or even grades themselves to assess learning – this could go on forever.)

    Is it a perfect system? Certainly not. Unfortunately, it never will be. Every instructor could benefit from taking a graduate level instructional evaluation course (which I just happen to have completed recently.) Curriculum should be evaluated and improved upon as much as possible.

    I’m a big believer in Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Do we, as instructors, need to be able to teach to different learning styles and intelligence types? Absolutely. Is this easy to do? Not even a little bit. However, it is also the student’s responsibility to adapt as well as possible to different teaching styles, especially at the collegiate level.


  10. Shelley writes: I’m a fan of rubrics myself. They serve a dual purpose of protecting both the student and instructor. As an instructor, rubrics make assignments easier to grade.


    I’m not. At first glance, rubrics give the illusion of feedback. But think again. Do they really tell your child or you all that much? Read Alfie Kohn’s “The Trouble with Rubrics.”


  11. K, I totally agree with your post especially after watching my 9th grade son do a “fun” English project for 9 hours last Sunday. It was a totally prescripted assignment, even though there was some choice involved. At the end of it he said, “I made a vow to not read another book until I have to next year for school.” How sad. This is what happens when students don’t get to make real choices in the classroom.


  12. Yup, Kerry. Ten hour projects in high school. At least in elementary, they got choose their assignment.


  13. K., you seem to be conflating a lot of issues into one big “we coddle our children.” I generally agree with you in disliking overly prescribed school assignments. And I think many kids would benefit from learning to handle new situations independently. But why would you expect a young adult — who may be traveling alone for the first time — to know exactly how to handle a delayed, rescheduled, or canceled charter flight? Dealing with travel difficulties is a skill the develops with experience. Back in 1982, when I was a recent college graduate, I was stuck in an airport in Europe for almost 24 hours when the air controllers’ strike hit. Believe me, if I’d had a cell phone, I’d have been sobbing on the phone to my parents for a good part of that time! Of course, I did make it home without parental supervision, and I gained a lot of confidence from the experience. But I hardly think my ability to function independently would have been compromised forever if I’d been able to get a few calm words of reassurance from my mother.

    I now have kids of 10 and 12, and I’ve recently started pointing out airport signs and asking them to help find our gates when we travel. I hope that by the time they’re young adults, they’ll be confident about traveling alone. But we’re privileged to travel fairly frequently. Not every kid has that experience, and some who do have parents who are themselves nervous travelers. You seem to imply that young adult travelers should have the same level of confidence and maturity as older, more experienced travelers. That strikes me as unfair and unrealistic, since, more or less by definition, young adults are not as mature or experienced as older folks!


  14. Just a quick thought about rubrics–
    In my K-8th school we didn’t have grades and instead got long ‘evaluations’ instead. There was the narrative portion, 1-3 paragraphs by the teacher about the kid along with 1-3 paragraphs by the kid about themselves, and then the ‘checkboxes.’ I think we must have gotten rubrics for an individual assignment at least once or twice during my career there, but the ‘checkboxes’ as they were called were only given at the end of the semesters. They had three columns, no number values attached, labeled ‘developing understanding,’ something like ‘general/working understanding’ and something with the gist of ‘utter mastery/above and beyond understanding,’ and the student would go through and put an X in the appropriate column for each of the different topics listed. (Might I just say I love the phrase ‘developing understanding’? Not bad/failed/low quality/lesser understanding, but ‘developing,’ i.e. we’re in the process of improving.) By topics I mean, for example, in math there might be a 2-variable algebra column, a quadratics column, a parallelogram geometry column, a graphing calculator programming column, and so forth. Once the student had X’ed where they thought appropriate, the teacher would go through and put a check mark in the appropriate column where they disagreed with the student. Personally, I thought these worked very well, but they seem to be a different sort of rubrics than the kind Alfie Kohn was talking about in his article…


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