When schools relax rules for 'helicopter' parents and their kids, other students suffer

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Parents who are highly involved in their children's schooling just want what's best for them. But according to a study from Indiana University researcher Jessica Calarco, that often comes at the expense of other, less privileged students.

Calarco, an associate professor of sociology in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, spent three years observing students, teachers and parents in a suburban, public elementary school to gather data for "Avoiding Us versus Them: How Schools' Dependence on Privileged Helicopter Parents Influences Enforcement of Rules." She also conducted interviews with teachers, administrators, parents and students and examined report card data and budget documents. Calarco's findings appeared in the April issue of American Sociological Review and are also detailed in an online brief for the Council on Contemporary Families.

While Calarco wasn't surprised to find that most "helicopter" parents were white and had a high socioeconomic status, she was struck by just how dependent schools are on their support. In addition to relying on their tax dollars, Calarco said, schools also leaned on privileged parents for volunteer time and donations. As a result, teachers often exempted those parents and their children from certain rules, including those involving attendance and homework.

Jessica Calarco View print quality image
Jessica Calarco is an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University.  Photo courtesy of Jessica Calarco

"Because the school was so dependent on these very privileged parents, especially stay-at-home moms who are able to provide a high level of support at school, they've oftentimes felt pressure to cater to those families," Calarco said. "They didn't want to lose the support of those families."

At the same time, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds -- especially those whose parents weren't as involved in school -- often faced more consequences, such as being kept inside during recess because they forgot their homework. While many of the students' parents weren't as engaged because of work obligations, Calarco said teachers assumed it was because they didn't prioritize learning. Teachers therefore thought those children needed more structure and gave them less leeway with the rules.

The study highlights a problem that's bigger than teacher bias; Calarco said the whole education system is stacked in favor of students from highly privileged backgrounds because of the outsized influence their families have at school. Addressing the imbalance would require more funding for schools, so they no longer have to rely on "helicopter" parents to fill the gaps.

"I think that really it's about parents pushing for 'How can we make sure that all schools are funded in a way that is equitable and adequate? How can we make sure that all students have access to high-quality resources, high-quality opportunities, without having to rely on privileged parents to be the ones to provide the funding or logistical support?'" Calarco said.

That could mean lobbying for more state and federal tax funding for all schools, or even pushing to make sure PTO meetings happen at a time that makes them accessible to working families.

Calarco's most recent study is part of her larger body of research on how a child's socioeconomic status impacts their education. She collected the data while working on her 2018 book, "Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School."

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