Editing Your Child's Paper: Unfair Advantage?

A mother is editing her daughter's college papers — is that putting her child at an unfair advantage? Not quite, says Ethicist Randy Cohen. The purpose of college is not to compete, but to become an educated person... so if the mother is helping her daughter learn, she's doing the right thing.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

We've all heard about overbearing parents who micromanage every aspect of their children's lives. Some people call them helicopter parents because they hover so closely over their children. This week's question for ethicist Randy Cohen comes from Jeff in Texas, who prefers not to use his last name. He's wondering just how involved a parent should be.

We have Jeff on the line now. Hello there.

JEFF (Resident, Texas): Hello. Nice to visit with you.

ELLIOTT: And Randy, welcome back.

RANDY COHEN: Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So Jeff, you wrote to us about a friend of yours. You are a bit concerned that she was just a little bit too involved. Tell us what had you concerned.

JEFF: A little too involved in her daughter's Ivy League education, I felt. A little over a year ago I slowly caught on that there was an exchange between my friend and her daughter, that assignments were being e-mailed for my friend to review. At first I didn't think much of it, but then I began to note the frequency and the amount of activity and time and effort that my friend was spending on these e-mails.

I then confronted my friend and asked, what are we doing here? And according to her, she was simply editing these assignments, as any caring parent would do. I also confronted the student and she said, my mom doesn't write my papers, she just helps me with grammar. Based upon my observations, however, I thought that there are some ethical concerns here. It just didn't look right or feel right, and as an educator myself, I felt that the student should be standing on her own two feet and writing her own assignments or learning grammar. So we've had a little bit of debate on this.

ELLIOTT: Now, you say you're an educator. You're a high school principal?

JEFF: Yes, ma'am. I am.

ELLIOTT: So you must see a lot of this type of thing. You must have parents that really want to help their kids and are going a little above and beyond just correcting the grammar. What do you tell them?

JEFF: When it comes to papers and things of that nature, we in public schools, we do want parents to assist students. We do want them to be involved in their child's education. And so here there's a little nuance between public schools, I believe, my opinion, and post-secondary. In a post-secondary, I do feel that the student should be completely on their own, and that's been my dilemma. What are the appropriate parameters for a parent?

ELLIOTT: Randy, I know you have a daughter who is in college right now. Have you ever been tempted to give her essays that little extra bit of parental polish?

COHEN: Oh, I have attempted but, you know, she won't even tell me her phone number up there. So I'm -

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: It's almost as if she were an independent person. It makes me very sad. I miss her every day. But she is not seeking my help. I think you were onto something, Jeff, when you were getting at the difference between high school and college, at least in terms of the ethics of the situation, that high school includes a competition for grades and it's a competition ultimately for getting into college.

So if one student is receiving inappropriate help, they're harming other students who don't have access to that help. So we know that's at the center of the ethical question - who's harmed your other classmates?

In college, it's different. College is not primarily a competition for grades. For the most part, the grades don't really matter. Most kids are not struggling to get into graduate school. So the purpose of college is to become an educated person. And the parent's duty here is to help or at least not to do anything to thwart a child becoming an educated person in the fullest sense of it.

So it's very much depends then on what kind of help this parent is giving. If the kind of help is genuinely helping the daughter become a better writer, having a richer understanding of grammar, that's great. If the daughter were in medical school and, you know, they're working on the patella this month and the mother's a doctor and they have interesting discussions about the knee, well, that's terrific. It's helping in the education.

But if by offering this kind of editing the mother is undermining the daughter's efforts to become a good writer and to have an understanding of grammar herself, then the mother is failing the daughter.

But here the kind of failure we're talking about is not an ethical failure; it's a pedagogical failure. So the essential question is: Is she helping the daughter learn or hindering the daughter's learning?

JEFF: Right. Got it.

ELLIOTT: Jeff, thank you for your call.

JEFF: Yes. I enjoyed our discussion very much. Thank you all.

ELLIOTT: It's perfectly ethical for Randy Cohen to answer your questions, but he probably won't do your homework for you. Drop us a line, go to our Web site, npr.org, click on Contact Us and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word ethics in the subject line and please include a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, thank you.

COHEN: Thanks very much, Debbie.

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