We’ve all heard of “helicopter” parents—the moms and dads who hover a little too close and swoop in to assuage every discomfort. You may think that this sort of well-intentioned behavior stops at the graduate school level once these “children” become full-fledged adults, but I assure you, it doesn’t always. In fact, things seem to be getting worse. As a law school and bar exam tutor, I’ve seen my share of helicopter parents and the effect this type of hand-holding is having on young adults who are learning to become lawyers. And I’ll tell you this: it’s not good.
Let me start by saying, there is no doubt in my mind that every parent who coddles their child is also a parent who probably loves that kid fiercely and wants the very best for him or her. Love and good intentions aren’t the problem. Unfortunately, there are several parental behaviors I’ve seen over the years that, in my humble opinion, have a marked effect on how well a student will be able to navigate law school and succeed as a new lawyer.
Here’s how I think helicopter parenting is hurting law students. But, don’t take my word for it, check out what the former Dean of Freshman at Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Haims, had to say about the undergrads she worked with. Or, look at how the children of helicopter parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.
Emphasizing the end result instead of the process.
All law students want an A in the class. The problem with parents putting too much emphasis on the final grade (or passing the bar or becoming a lawyer) is that it completely bypasses the process of how their child is getting there. In law school, the process is more than half the battle. In fact, in most classes, you have no idea what your grade might be until the very end of the semester, and it’s all based on one exam. If you didn’t figure out a good process for yourself, there is no way to come back from that and get a good grade. Besides, anyone can have one bad day.
By making the only important thing in life that A+ that, let’s face it, the majority of law students are frankly just never going to achieve based on the harsh reality of strict law school grading curves, parents are setting their kids up to be disappointed in themselves and feel like failures when they fall short. While grades do matter, what matters even more is what you’re learning, how you can develop learning skills and how to figure out what works for you personally when it comes to understanding dense material, keeping on top of a hectic schedule, and not backing down in the face of adversity. By prioritizing the end results to the exclusion of everything else, parents can really shift focus away from what matters to doing well as a law student.
Not letting them struggle.
For many students, if not most, law school can be one big struggle. And, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may struggle quite a bit with obvious things like understanding difficult substantive law, learning to think in new ways, and how to stand up for yourself and others and champion your ideas based on the evidence you can marshal. On the other hand, there are other struggles law students deal with on a near-daily basis, such as learning to navigate bureaucracy, figuring out how tactfully but persuasively disagree with your professional superiors, and how to work hard at something you and everyone around you might feel is impossible without giving up and throwing in the towel when the going gets tough.
Parents who don’t let their kids struggle in these ways are really doing them a disservice. We’ve all probably heard stories of the boss who gets a call from mom saying, “You’re working my kid too hard, ease up.” Or, the registrar who receives an email from dad saying, “My son won’t be turning in his legal writing assignment today.” These parents might think they’re helping, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re actually making that child look like a fool to their professional colleagues and teaching them how not to fight their own battles as an adult in the legal profession. If these parents (or kids) think any law firm partner or judge for that matter is going to take kindly to this kind of parental intervention, they’re absolutely wrong.
To be fair, though, there are many examples I’ve seen that aren’t this extreme. I knew people in law school whose parents looked over their assignments before they turned them in. This actually happens pretty frequently, but that doesn’t make it okay. I have worked with law students whose parents wake them up in the morning, pack their lunch, do their laundry, manage and contribute to their finances and also intervene if they ever get push-back from any adult in their life. I worked with a student once who had no idea how to send a letter through regular postal mail. No idea whatsoever! He didn’t even know where to go to buy stamps or where to put the stamps once he got them. And, this was back in the day when people paid bills with checks, so needless to say he had never paid a bill in his life. This might sound insane, but it’s true. And, at law schools all around the country, parents are checking homework, helping with time management, and taking on an active role in their child’s academics. Like I said, I’m sure this is all being done out of love, but this kind of coddling is making for a generation of law students who will find it extremely difficult to live as self-sufficient adults once they finish school.
As Professor Kathleen Elliott Vinson at Suffolk University Law School quoted (and I’m paraphrasing), if mommy or daddy is swooping in and fighting a kid’s battles for them when they’re a law student, how is that kid going to handle advocating for their client in front of a judge?
Forcing them to pursue a career path they don’t want.
Sometimes I work with students who come to us miserable. They don’t actually want to be lawyers. I had a bar student once who didn’t ever want to be a lawyer, not ever. He was only taking the exam for his parents’ sake. What he really got fulfillment out of in life was cooking and event planning. He wanted to be a chef, and he was good at it. And, even though I was his bar exam tutor, I had to ask him, “Why in the world are you beating your brains out over this exam if, best case scenario, you don’t even want the end result?” Did he think being a lawyer would somehow be engaging enough to override that deep sense of incompatibility with his chosen profession? Was he so intent on pleasing his parents that he would sacrifice his own future well-being? I think the very best thing parents of law students can do is love them unconditionally no matter what they decide to do with their lives. Law school is hard, and if the only reason you’re there is for someone else, that’s a recipe for an unhappy three years, and potentially a lot more unhappiness in the future.
Shielding them from any negativity or criticism.
There’s that old saying on the first day of law school about, “Look around the room, X number of you won’t be here at the end of the semester.” It’s important to realize that not everyone in a law school class is going to succeed. For many, law school is the first time that any of these young adults have been faced with a classroom full of competition that is just as good, if not better, than they are. Like I said, most people won’t get the As.
If a student goes through life being insulated from negative feedback or constructive criticism by their parent, then that kid will have a rude awakening when they end up in the middle or bottom of their class in law school. A certain amount of falling on your face needs to happen in law school so a student can make sure they’re figuring out the methods that work well for them. I’m not saying law students should be isolated or cut off from resources or made to fail on purpose. But, every law student is going to write a terrible hypo once in a while. And those terrible hypos are good because they teach students where their weaknesses are.
If you go into a law school exam thinking you don’t have any weaknesses, or if you haven’t put in the effort to actively search out those weaknesses and make them stronger, you’re probably not going to perform very well. I have seen quite a few students who have way too much confidence for their level of ability, and I think parents can help this by encouraging their children to fail productively, bomb utterly and completely if you have to in practice. The important part is what you do after that. The students who realize their shortcomings, pick themselves up and work even harder to overcome them usually have a better shot at succeeding. The ones who get so traumatized by the new sensation of falling that they can’t learn from it usually don’t.
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