By CELA on 24 Jan, 2020

The Dictionary of Psychology (1999) defines stereotyping as an ‘over-generalised’ belief that people from a certain group will behave in a certain way.

Our brains nurture stereotypes because they help us to rapidly respond to other people.  It’s a form of prediction: a temptation to think we can see a little into the future by ‘knowing’ what someone will be like based on the group we think they are from.

From To Kill A Mockingbird to Harry Potter and most of Shakespeare’s plays, the stories that grab us most are often the ones that reveal a surprise when a stereotype is disproved. Stereotypical thinking causes both positive bias and negative bias in our actions, creating unfounded advantages or disadvantages for the other party.

While many scholarly discussions exist around stereotyping and bias from educators to children, less academic time has been given to the stereotypes that we form of another important human contact: the children’s caregivers and especially their parents.

Those parenting stereotypes are very real, and just as present in the early years as they are in schools. Amplify takes a look at three of the most widely shared stereotypes and reflects on how we can challenge them.

Busting the parent stereotypes

We’re about to have a look at three of the most widely shared, and negative, parent stereotypes in education today: helicopter, lawnmower, and tiger.

We aren’t perpetuating these ‘types’, but posing some reflection questions to help you and your team find and assist the real individual behind the colourful description.

Before we look at specific stereotypes, you might consider these general questions whenever you’re faced with a strong parental personality!

Reflections and actions for educators facing a strong parent ‘type’

  • How consistent is the parent’s behaviour and how much of it do you see? Everyone has good days and bad days and the few daily minutes at drop off and pick up time will never give a well-rounded picture of the person.
  • Is this behaviour actually a problem for the child, for educators, or the parent? For example, is it disrupting the educational program or creating ill-feeling?
  • If the answer is no, revisit resources like this one from ACECQA to help you balance respect for a parent’s style with your responsibilities to the child and the National Quality Standard.
  • If the answer is yes, have a discussion in your team about exactly what problems you observe before you can consider fixing them.
  • Check the issues you uncover against benchmarks other than personality. Can you align your respect for this parent’s style with the benchmark, regulation or standard applying to the child?

For example:

  • Your service’s philosophy is to promote outdoor learning but the child’s family refuses to let them leave the premises
  • You follow the national play-based learning framework but the parent wants to see disciplined and traditional academic activities.

Helicopter parents

Named for their tendency to ‘hover’ over their children wherever they go and known for anxiously supervising and protecting as much of their lives as they can. Any service that offers indoor and outdoor webcam streaming will be popular with this family! Their ever-present concern may become irritating, even exhausting, over time and may lead to educators feeling resentful and untrusted.

Conversely, their constant presence might also make you think less of their worries. After all, they are always around or messaging you, so surely they know there’s nothing to fret about by now? Dismissing a helicopter parents concerns may cement their belief that only they, personally, can ensure their child will be safe and happy.

Reflections for helicopter parents

  • How clear is your service policy around risk and safety? Have you got a wide range of examples to prove children are secure in outdoor play and on excursions? Testimonials from other parents can be very powerful.
  • Do you have an open-door policy to parents? Does it need some tweaking to accommodate parents who visit more often than anticipated, so both the parents and educators can agree on expectations?

Lawnmower parents

These parents drive ahead of their child from their earliest years through to adulthood, mowing down all obstacles in their paths. They work very hard to ensure their children’s lives are easy and free of disappointment. No one is going to get in the way of their child’s future happiness!

They may quiz you about who their child’s friends are, the qualifications of their educators, and your service’s quality rating. Lawnmower families might appear focused on status, but their motivation is to protect their child from any disappointment, boredom or sadness.

Reflections for lawnmower parents

  • How well does your service explain concepts like building emotional resilience? If lawnmower parenting is driven by fear of adversity for their child, you may be able to gradually introduce the importance of occasional upsets. Resilience could be presented as a way for their child to be protected from the larger hurts of adulthood.
  • If parents with lawnmower tendencies are reacting with high alarm to minor accidents like grazed knees, it might be time to review your standard incident advice form. The impersonal wording on a typical incident report at pick up time can send a highly protective parent’s blood pressure soaring before an educator can speak to them.

Tiger parents

Popularised by author Amy Chua, tiger parenting is a term for imposing extremely high standards of achievement on children. It can begin very early, with pressure on infants to walk, toddlers to read, and preschoolers to complete mathematical problems.

The concept of play-based learning will be hard for a tiger parent to accept – play may be seen as a waste of time. Apart from your early years service, the child of a tiger parent is probably enrolled in several extracurricular activities that fill most of their waking hours.  You may be asked for homework for a toddler, or number drills for a preschooler.

While they may appear ‘pushy’, parents with tiger tendencies often have enormous and genuine confidence in their child’s abilities.

Reflections for tiger parents

  • Parents with tiger tendencies have a belief in their child’s potential that makes them prime candidates for positive praise. Can you share resources on praising children to reinforce their sense of belonging and becoming at the service and at home?
  • Is there a way you can better describe ‘results’ from a play-based framework? Results can be reassuring for highly anxious, or tigerish, parents.
  • If the amount of ‘push’ from a parent becomes overwhelming for educators, consider a quarterly or monthly one-to-one meeting where all the parent’s concerns can be addressed and reassurances given.

Stereotypes and children

Educators are exposed to stereotyping temptations because they see groups of children of a similar age or stage of development, year after year.  Educators often work within one community for a number of years, which adds the temptation to stereotype based on other factors like geography, language background, and economic status.

Educators naturally value individual differences in children, but there is also something comforting in finding a similar thread of behaviour or attitude from child to child, year to year. It may be an attribute you’ve handled well in the past, for example, which makes you confident you can handle it again in the future.  Be aware, though, of where thoughts like this could take your actions:

  • He’s the naughty one this year
  • She’s so shy
  • That’s just a cultural thing

References and resources

Next time you feel like you’re falling into a stereotyping dip, you may want to dive into one of the following references and resources:


Other writings

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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