Hovering parents do more harm than good

August 4, 2005 | By Patti Martin

Who knew how right Neil Howe would be when he coined the term “helicopter parents” two years ago?

In “Millennials Go to College,” co-authored by William Strauss, Howe used “helicopter parents” to describe individuals who “hover over the school at all times, waiting to drop in at the least sign of trouble.”

Increasingly, colleges and universities throughout the country are finding that they have to deal with parents who have been engaged in their children’s education since preschool and see nothing wrong with continuing that practice well into college and beyond.

“We are seeing a generation of parents who have been more involved in every step of their child’s education,” says Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students and dean for the freshman transition at Washington University in St. Louis.

But why?

“Some say it’s the baby-boom parents who are just used to being in charge and controlling their environment,” says Coburn, co-author of “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.” “Also, there are more families who are having children at a later age and we are seeing more students who come from small families of one or two children.”

In addition, Coburn says there’s an increased anxiety about “doing it right.”

“Parents want their children (to get) into the most selective colleges and many start worrying about this as early as the preschool years. They are concerned about their children taking the right classes in elementary through high school and concerned that they get good grades and develop resumes of the perfect combination of extracurricular activities and summer activities,” Coburn says. “A lot of these parents have helped to shape their kid’s experiences in very hands-on ways.”

And when the kids head off to college—traditionally a time when parents become a little more hands-off—their parents are right behind them, or in some cases right there with them.

“There’s this new generation of over-involved parents who are flooding campus orientations, meddling in registrations and interfering with students’ dealings with professors, administrators and roommates,” says Madge Treeger, who co-authored “Letting Go” with Coburn. “There’s no area where they don’t believe they they don’t belong.”

Lee D. Schneider, dean of students at Rutgers University’s Cook College, says that his office routinely receives calls from parents wanting to know how their child is doing.

“And while I tell parents that I absolutely will check on their child, I also tell them that I will also tell the child who called and why,” Schneider says.

And when it comes to how the child is doing academically, Schneider has a pat response: “Ask your child.”

“If a student is 18 years old, we do not have the right to give the parent the student’s grade,” he says. “Even if the parent says ‘We’re paying for college,’ the child is an adult and we cannot release the information.”

But it seems that some parents can’t take no for an answer.

A Syracuse University professor told Time magazine that she has had students who call their parents during class to complain about a grade and then pass the phone to the professor so she can speak. Some students even blamed their tardiness on parents who failed to give them a wake-up call.

At the University of Georgia, students frustrated about the registration process have whipped out cell phones during meetings with advisers and hit the speed dial in order to have their parents do something.

In response, colleges and universities are developing innovative programs to provide parents with information, while allowing students to function on their own.

At Rutgers’ Cook College, for example, Schneider says there’s an active Parents’ Association, which helps parents deal with a variety of topics.

“They also help sponsor a picnic on campus each year for parents and students where they give tours of the campus and provide information sessions on a variety of topics,” Schneider says. “It’s an opportunity for parents to ask questions, learn about the programs that are offered and learn about the kinds of things to expect when kids head off to college.”

At Seton Hall University in South Orange, parents of freshmen are encouraged to sign up for Connection, an e-mail newsletter that offers the usual reminders as well as parenting advice.

“Helicopter parents want their kids to grow to be independent and successful,” says Coburn. ‘If the parents can step back and really think about what they value in an adult, they will realize that the ability to solve problems is one of the key traits that we look for in highly functioning adults.

“Parents need to keep that in mind. Any parent hates to see their kids have a hard time and suffer, but if they can help them learn to solve problems—rather than taking care of everything for them—they are giving them a great gift.”

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