Attention, helicopter parents: Stop hovering
By Katie Scarvey
Twenty years ago, parents would drop their kids off at college, send a check to the bursar every semester, and call on Sunday afternoon.
Those days are long gone.
Today’s boomer parents expect more ó much more.
Cell phones and computers have made it easy for them to stay attached to their kids through an electronic umbilical cord. Many parents phone and text message their children throughout the day ó and some even place daily wake-up calls.
Some aren’t content with a mere electronic presence, like the mom of a Tar Heel student who drives regularly from Charlotte to Chapel Hill to do her son’s laundry.
Increasingly, over-involved parents are driving college and university professionals crazy with their need to control from afar.
Helicopter parents, they are often called. Why? They hover. When things look iffy, they swoop in. The most aggressive are dubbed Blackhawks.
Hyper-parenting can start long before a student sets foot on campus. Some parents see nothing wrong with completing an entire application and even submitting it without the student’s knowledge, says Nancy McDuff, associate vice president for admissions and enrollment management at the University of Georgia.
McDuff deals regularly with parents who are overly invested in the process. When final decisions go out, it’s not uncommon for her staff to be confronted with crying mothers and fathers, left devastated ó and sometimes angry ó by a decision.
Parents seem unwilling to take “no” for an answer even when it comes to dorm assignments.
Dr. Shay Little, director of residence hall administrative operations at the University of Georgia, says that the mother of a student there who didn’t get into the residence hall of her choice drove two hours with her daughter to campus to address the issue. When she didn’t get what she wanted, she called daily for two weeks.
Dan Sullivan, dean of students at Catawba College, says helicopter parenting is getting worse. It swings into full gear, he says, when parents unpack for their children, make their beds and direct them where to hang pictures. Before they leave, they’ve requested the R.A.’s cell phone number, as well as his or her Facebook account and Instant Message information, Sullivan says.
Dr. Nan Zimmerman, director of counseling services at Catawba College, says helicopter parenting isn’t all bad. Highly involved parents do ensure that schools are held accountable for doing what they promise, she says.
The downside though, Zimmerman says, is that children of such parents are less likely to become self-sufficient.
Dr. Donna McGalliard, director of residence life and housing at Wake Forest University, says her office sees hyper-parenting even before orientation. This year, she says, one parent called and wanted her son’s roommate changed ó based on a Facebook page.
Sometimes, parents press an agenda the student doesn’t share. One parent requested that her child be moved from a double to a single room. When the student herself was asked about the change, she adamantly denied wanting a single room, McGalliard says.
Sullivan’s office struggles daily to handle over-involved parents.
“I don’t think I could hear anything at this point that would surprise me,” he says. “We’ve had students who are failing classes, and the parents will want us to go and get them up out of bed to go to class.”
Jennifer Johnson, director of residential life at Catawba College, marvels at the calls from parents who want to know what she’s doing during exam time to make sure students are staying in their rooms to study.
One mother of a student at Virginia Tech fully expected staff there to figure out how her daughter’s horse would be boarded, says Dr. Gerald Kowalski, former director of residence life there.
A common refrain among college personnel is that parents are the ones who address problems (or what they perceive as problems). College officials would much prefer that students take the initiative to work out their own issues.
“Students have lost the drive to come in and even represent themselves now,” Sullivan says.
Kowalski, who is now director of housing at the University of Georgia, says increased communication between students and parents, while good in some ways, can lead to hasty parental involvement. Students might “download their bad day” to mom or dad, he says, who will promptly call the school ó not realizing they don’t have all sides of the story.
Sullivan says that a colleague who works in the career development office at UNC-Charlotte has told him that some employers now routinely allow parents to sit in on students’ job interviews.
“That used to be a crazy request,” he says, “but it’s not anymore.”
Parents may also interject themselves in students’ attempts to get campus jobs, sometimes calling to ask why their son or daughter wasn’t selected as a resident advisor, Sullivan says.
“I don’t know that there is any boundary anymore for what a parent can address,” he says.
Like Sullivan, McGalliard is used to parents calling her office at the drop of a hat.
“They’ll call if their child has seen a roach or stepped wrong in the bathroom and bumped their hip on the sink,” she says.
It’s no longer uncommon for parents to have access to their students’ college e-mail accounts so they can transact business for them.
In one case, Little suspected that a student e-mail complaining about mail delivery was really being sent by the parent.
“When the staff personally inspected the student’s mail box, there were days of mail piled up, including several pieces of mail from home,” Little says. “It appeared that the student had not been checking his mailbox in some time.
“We decided to politely reply to the ‘student’s’ e-mail saying that his mailbox was full of mail and that if he needed assistance locating his mailbox our office would be happy to help.”
College officials agree that, by and large, students have no problem with their parents taking charge.
“They are more than willing to let Mom and Dad handle issues for them,” McGalliard says. This generation of students has been so planned and scheduled their whole lives by their parents that when it continues in college it doesn’t seem that unusual, she adds.
Kowalski agrees. This generation of parents, he says, has always been highly involved in their children’s lives.
McGalliard says that students who have been encouraged to be more independent are easily identifiable.
“You can always tell the ones who have been allowed to do things on their own,” she says. “They handle things.””We try so hard to prepare them for the real world,” Sullivan says, “and I just think we’re going to have a whole generation of students getting out who are not prepared to handle situations on their own.”
Too-frequent contact with parents is part of the problem, he believes.
“It’s not unusual for them to talk to parents off and on all day long,” he says.
When he talks to students in his office, Sullivan is no longer surprised when they pull out phones and call to involve a parent in the conversation.
“It’s like they can’t even think for themselves anymore. They’ve never had to work out problems in their head,” he says, because their parents are micromanaging. “That is a big concern for me.”
The worst helicopter parent experience Sullivan has had is with a mother who tried to forbid any college staff member from talking to her daughter directly because the mother was getting conflicting information from her daughter and from college officials.
The mother told Sullivan that she needed to be the one to impart all information to her child.
Sullivan believes over-involved parents aren’t preparing students to handle failure ó which helps them learn to be adults and take responsibility for decisions. He even believes that overbearing parents have negatively affected students’ social skills, including how they relate to others, including their peers.
The problem of over-involved parents has also begun to affect faculty members, who are increasingly fielding phone from parents who are upset about grades.
If McGalliard could give parents some advice, what would it be?
“Trust that your child is going to have a great experience and instill in them the confidence to handle things on their own. Still give advice and love and nurture, but let them experience college and the issues that come along with life in general on their own.”
Oh, and stop hovering.
By Katie Scarvey firstname.lastname@example.org Just four years ago, the site of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke was a... read more