Left to my own devices, I am, at times, a helicopter mom. So I was more than a little relieved to read that Sue Shallenbarger of “The Wall Street Journal” is one, too. After all, if I did not speak with my son’s English teacher in fifth grade, would he have remained in the worst reading group of the class? And how about that scheduling snafu that left my 10th-grade daughter shut out of art class despite her passion for continuing her art studies? Suddenly the theme song of the movie “Ghost Busters” comes to mind: Who are they gonna call? Parent Busters! And so helicopter parents have liftoff.
Of course, it really starts those first few months of kindergarten with us parents lingering in the hallways outside the classroom, worried about our young children, wanting to make sure the morning transition goes smoothly. Yet part of a teacher’s job is to try to get kids to be as independent as possible, starting with showing the students how to put away their backpacks and coats in assigned cubbies on that first day of school. And so they gently chide us that class is under way and we should skedaddle, as in, go home. Some of us do, and others pile on volunteer assignments from classroom to library help to administrative tasks to justify lingering around to check out the lay of the land for the grade our child is in that year.
Fast-forward to college, where we parents now hover by the telephone, one call away from helping our kids tackle tough homework assignments, do Internet research, check out friends and roommates on Facebook and lobby for everything from a better roommate to better grades. And so parents have become a force to be reckoned with at high schools and on college campuses nationwide. It has become so prolific that schools have set up everything from two-day parent orientations to webcams in dining halls and dormitories for parents to take a peek at what’s going on.
The term “helicopter parent” came into vogue a few years ago among college administrators to define the growing trend of parents who seem just a bit too involved in their child’s day-to-day lives at school. It turns out that we overprotective moms and dads come from all walks of life, but we have one thing in common: hovering over our children and being willing to swoop down to intervene at every setback.
Tales of the helicopter parent
Stories abound: The mother of a University of Virginia business school student arrived in town before her son to rent him an apartment and set up all the utilities, much to the surprise of the student affairs director. At UCLA, parents are attending receptions for admitted students and requesting to sit in on classes. Yale found an increase in parents calling their admission office requesting catalogs for their children. At Dartmouth, parents called the director of admissions to complain that their children were not admitted. At many schools, administrators are starting to fulfill dean of parents roles alongside the dean of students, just to field the endless stream of complaints, interventions and parental questions. But wait, there’s more:
- At Tufts, the parents program hosts events, sends regular e-mails and provides grades to keep parents connected with their child’s on-campus life.
- Many schools, such as Brown University, hold specific orientations for parents, focusing both on how they can be involved in their college student’s life and when they need to let go.
- At Buffalo State College in New York, parents are invited to meet faculty members and administrators at a reception, and the college holds a parent and family orientation program to establish a partnership between parents and the school.
- St. Olaf College in Minnesota recently installed a “Hi Mom” webcam that allows parents, literally, to keep an eye on their kids.
- Montana State University created a parent/family association for parents — think “PTA goes to college.”
- The University of Vermont holds seminars for parents to teach them how to refrain from being too involved in their children’s lives.
- Colgate University coaches parents on their policy of self-reliance for students.
The high school helicopter parent
Even high schools are dealing with helicopter parents by giving them outlets for their energy. By creating new parent groups, booster clubs and other organizations, they allow parents to have their say without always trying to get directly involved. Other schools fight to ban cell phones — not because students are text messaging or calling each other, but because parents are constantly contacting their kids during class. And at private schools across the country, parents are finding themselves being turned away. Teachers and principals often refuse to meet with the most abrasive parents, and some schools have even added clauses to their handbooks saying children can be kicked out of school for their parents’ behavior.
No matter what our primary parental concern is — safety, academic success, or even encouraging children to take opportunities that we ourselves missed out on — as parents we are, in record number, micromanaging our teen and college students’ lives. In fact, according to a recent study out from the University of Texas-Austin, most of us parents are involved in some kind of intrusive behavior. Here are some intriguing findings of that study:
All income levels, races, ethnicities, and both genders are involved in the phenomenon. Sixty to 70 percent of ALL parents of college students are involved in helicopter parenting in some way.
Sixty percent of all helicopter parenting is done by mothers and directed at sons — specifically, in the social, academic and domestic aspects of their sons’ lives.
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Fathers are more involved in issues such as grades and finances, and are usually more forceful when it comes to contacting administrators directly.
It’s not uncommon for these parents to contact teachers and professors themselves to argue over grades or attempt to change test dates. Other parents, the enablers, are guilty of spoiling their children, and continue to carry on with this behavior well into their children’s adult years. They do their child’s laundry, clean her room and give her daily wake-up calls — despite the fact that their child is 25. Somewhat related are the empty-nesters. These parents can’t stand to see their child becoming independent and going off on her own. They often consider themselves to be their child’s best friend, and are more unable to let go than their child. With their children out of the house, they may feel a lack of connection with their spouse, and they strive to remain in constant contact despite the distance.
What is causing this trend? Most likely a number of things, from technology to society to the rise in tuition rates. With the availability of cell phones and other means of communication, every teen that leaves for high school or goes off to college is now only a phone call or text message away. Which means, basically, that kids are constantly accessible, whether they like it or not. In fact, cell phones are becoming referred to as the world’s longest umbilical cord!
By providing too much for children, often because they’re afraid to say no and want to be their child’s friends, parents end up with grown children who have never learned to take full responsibility for themselves. Now that paying for college — and even private school — is quite a financial stretch for many families, parents are recognizing that education is truly an investment. Just like any other financial investment they’ve made, they want to ensure that they are maximizing potential — that their child is getting out of college as much as the family is putting into it. Parents no longer see educational and career success as solely their child’s accomplishment, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to push their children to success.
Many parents, perhaps helicopters themselves, don’t see the big deal with providing their children financial, emotional and even career-related support well into adulthood. Yet the trend has gotten more out of control than many parents realize. In some of the more extreme cases, parents have taken it upon themselves to install cameras in their child’s dorm room, go on job interviews with — or even in place of — their child, or participate in their child’s college lectures via cell or video phone. Clearly, this goes way beyond simply calling our kids a little too often.
Somewhere along the way, the line between supporting and controlling children has been blurred. And while helicopter parents want only to help, they end up doing their child a disservice. Kids who grow up without learning how to do simple things for themselves might have trouble dealing with real-world conflict, taking responsibility for their actions or making decisions as adults.
What kind of helicopter parent are you?
So, are you a helicopter parent? And if so, what kind of helicopter parent are you?
Although some parents are just overinvolved in general, many fall into specific categories of concern:
The safety-minded helicopter parent worries about school violence, nutrition, or even the exposure to sex, drugs and rock and roll offered up by college roommates. These parents stay in constant contact with their child’s school, their child, and even other students and their families, keeping tabs on everything from school safety policies to their child’s whereabouts at any given moment.
The academic watchdogs continue to monitor their child’s homework and grades as carefully as they did in elementary school, and some even go so far as to help with homework and projects when they think their child needs a little boost. Others seek access to students’ grades without the child’s permission or knowledge. It’s not uncommon for these parents to call up teachers and professors to argue over grades or attempt to change test dates.
Other parents, the enablers, are guilty of spoiling their child, and continue to carry this behavior well into their child’s adult years. They do their child’s laundry, clean her room and give her daily wake-up calls — despite the fact that she is old enough to be living on her own.
Somewhat related are the tied-at-the-hip parents. These parents are saddened by their child’s independence and miss the close connection they felt when their child depended on them entirely. They often consider themselves to be their child’s best friend, and probably suffer more separation anxiety than their child. Once the child does leave, they may feel a lack of connection with their spouse, and they strive to remain in constant contact with their child despite the distance.
Finally, some parents simply serve as lobbyists, who view themselves as the school’s clients. They will not hesitate to contact administrators or even the president’s office to discuss policies, share ideas or get involved in their child’s education in any way they can.
Of course, the most balanced of all parents are the ones who simply hover from afar, willing to step in when necessary but who, most of the time, recognize and encourage their child’s need to forge his independence.
Advice for the helicopter parent
So what is a helicopter parent to do? If you find yourself exhibiting some of the classic helicopter qualities, it may be time to back off. In order to encourage your children’s independence, refrain from constantly coming to their rescue. Listen to their problems and support them when necessary, but allow them to come to you for help rather than constantly getting involved on your own. Also permit your children to make their own decisions without always giving your advice first. If they’re especially nervous about a paper or job interview, offer to go over their resume or work — but only after they have completed it themselves. Ask your children to be responsible for doing their own laundry, cooking meals or scheduling appointments when in college. It’s also important that you do not contact professors, administrators or employees on your children’s behalf.
Your children won’t learn to do things themselves if you do everything for them, so recognize that unless it’s something your child truly can’t handle on her own, she’s better off figuring it out herself. Struggling with conflict and hardship is all a healthy part of life, and if we don’t start trusting our children to handle their own affairs, they’ll never learn to trust themselves.
There comes a point when as parents, we just have to let go, hoping we've taught our children well enough that they have problem-solving skills, without always relying on us to set things right.
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