Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.
Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive an email from a former student. Often, though, there is a point for their reach out. Sometimes it is assistance, usually at the 11th hour, with an assignment of significance. I rarely hear from students if it’s a trivial assignment. They know when to call in a favour and tend not to waste my time or theirs unless it is something significant. This time of year I am being contacted quite frequently to act as a reference for a scholarship, Grad School, or job. And as the university application season begins, I get emails asking about schools, programs and to help with supplementary applications. As I told one aspiring grad school applicant the other day, I am thankful to be contacted and to be able to assist. I really do enjoy doing so.
I also receive emails from parents. Now, there’s a difference in these emails. Some truly are looking for assistance that their child may need and that I can provide. And, it’s help that parents should be seeking. So I am not talking about helicopter, lawnmower, or snowplow parents. These are well-intentioned and involved parents who are stepping in because there is a gap somewhere that needs to be attended to and their child is not at an age or stage where they can or should be the one contacting me.
In many cases, I also hear from kids – even if they are in their 40s and they are a former student, I still see them as kids – it’s just a quick check-in, update, or hello. But these contacts are perhaps the most telling. This group appears to be just touching base and yet they are actually looking for reassurance, or more specific guidance or assistance than the ones asking for assignment or application help. More and more there are underlying mental health or social concerns that just need some hashing out. Of course, I do not pretend to be a psychologist or psychiatrist, so if anything is outside of my bailiwick, I get them in touch with one of my professional colleagues. But these run of the mill tune-ups is often the most rewarding conversations for me. They usually involve a walk or a coffee and help me as much as they help the individual.
So whether it is a student asking for editing help, a parent seeking sound advice, or an individual “checking-in” there is a common thread. Self-advocacy is defined as the ability to speak up for yourself and the things that are important to you. Self-advocacy means you are able to ask for what you need and want and tell people about your thoughts and feelings. The goal of self-advocacy is for the individual to understand what they need or want and to develop and carry out a plan by seeking out assistance and knowledge.
Often I am asked what is the single most important skill that one needs to be successful. Of course, there really isn’t just one arrow in one’s quiver of success. Each crossroad in life requires critical thinking, creativity, intellectual prowess, self-knowledge, and many other skills. And yet, I do often suggest that an individual who can self-advocate for themselves is better placed to be successful.
Meanwhile, back to the well-meaning helicopter/snowplow/lawnmower parent. As a golfer, I like the lawnmower analogy. Having golfed on beautifully groomed North American courses well as barely touched Scottish and Irish links courses, I really see this comparison as useful. The problem with having someone get out there and groom, cut, and manicure the course of life for their kids is that life is more like a links course. Links courses are characterized by uneven, undulating fairways, thick rough, and small, deep pot bunkers. As true links courses are along a coastline, they are often windy, lack trees, and are pounded by frequent sporadic rain squalls. So as well-meaning as the greenskeeper parents might be, they actually minimize the success of their children in the long run. Studies show that overparenting has a detrimental effect on children’s development. This type of parenting is associated with more emotional problems, struggles with decision-making, and lower academic performance.
Of course, no parent goes out of their way to undermine the development of their child. All parents just want what’s best for their kids. The issue also is not involvement, but a different type of involvement. It means preparing your child for the times when you are not around or unable to assist them. Which is actually most days and most situations. Think about it. Your child spends most of their time at school where you are not around. On the playground, in the lunchroom, in the classroom kids meet with obstacles that need resolution in the moment, It’s all well and good to go barrelling in the next day or fire off an email demanding action after the fact. Wouldn’t it be more helpful if your child had the tools to deal with situations in real-time?
That’s the beauty of self-advocacy and starting young. The aforementioned instances are what I like to refer to as non-catastrophic. Problems on the playground or in group work situations aren’t going to end horribly one way or the other. But if a child has the confidence and resiliency to attempt to take charge early, then later on at university or in the workplace, they are more likely to feel good about themselves and make good choices. Kids like this tend to be able to say what they think and feel and take responsibility for their actions and decisions. They are better able to help themselves and also to help others. Strong self-advocates are more often than not strong advocates period.
I have told so many kids over the years with a smile on my face that I will be happy if they learn nothing else while at school than to self-advocate for themselves. Slightly tongue in cheek, I tell them that when they head off to university no one will care whether they show up for a class, pass, or fail. That there is always another applicant to take their spot and that they really are just a number. As well, I remind them that schools will not listen to their parents and that due to confidentiality laws, they are actually obliged not to do so. This is where they tend to smile. It’s also where I remind them to be careful what they wish for. Just think how much easier it will be for the student whose parents, teachers, and coaches helped them to gain strong self-advocacy skills to talk to an academic advisor, professor, or Dean than it will be for the child of a lawnmower parent.
I guess that’s why I am so excited to hear from former students. No matter what the reason for the email or message, the contact tells me that they are looking after themselves. Whether academically or emotionally, they have taken charge and are making choices and decisions that affect their life. Most importantly, they understand that it’s okay to ask for assistance when needed. Self-advocacy is all about self-empowerment and knowing and doing what’s best for you. I don’t think there’s a parent in the world who doesn’t want that for their child, even if they try a little too hard sometimes to make sure that it happens.