The phenomenon of helicopter parenting in higher ed
When I was a kid, my mom would send me out to play after breakfast and I wouldn’t come home until dinner.
Scores of older Americans describe their childhoods this way. Kids today know little of this freedom to wander during unstructured Saturdays. Between organized play dates and soccer games coached by mom or dad, today’s kids grow up with a lot more parental supervision than their parents did.
One particular brand of supervision — where mom or dad is always hovering just a few feet away even after their children have grown — has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Last year alone, helicopter parents and their adult children were the subject of stories in Forbes, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times, New York Post and Psychology Today.
In these stories, parents called graduate school admissions offices on their children’s behalf and sat in on meetings with their grown son’s and daughter’s professional career coaches, among other jaw-dropping faux pas.
Studies show that the parenting style probably hasn’t reached the epidemic proportions the media suggest, but it is nevertheless a reality professors, administrators and students face at many universities.
What is helicopter parenting?
Helicopter parents, as they are portrayed in the media, are over-involved and oppressive, never letting their children make their own decisions and never letting them fail. But that’s not the whole story. “Helicopter parenting has three elements: over involvement; not granting your child age-appropriate autonomy; and benevolent intentions. They don’t want to harm their kids. They want to protect them from harm,” says Kyong-Ah Kwon, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development.
Kwon and her colleague Gary Bingham, also an associate professor in the college, recently published research on college students’ perceptions of helicopter parents in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.
Does it happen at Georgia State?
For Angela Hall-Godsey, associate director of the lower division in the Department of English, helicopter parents are all in a day’s work.
“We hear from parents when their student is failing a class or has been charged with plagiarism or academic dishonesty,” says Hall-Godsey. “We have parents who demand that their student be removed from a class because it requires them to use Twitter or Facebook and they don’t want their child — even though the student is 18 years old — on social media. Parents call because an instructor used profanity in class. They call to provide false alibis for their children when they’ve missed class.”
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits college faculty from discussing student information with parents. But when parents go to bat for their college students, the students sign those privacy rights away.
Hall-Godsey has faced parents who march into her office flanked with lawyers or a big entourage.
“A mother whose son had plagiarized came in and she was irate,” Hall-Godsey says. “She showed up with six other people and said that we were going to be in trouble. She really didn’t need all those people. It was intimidating.”
Another parent, a local judge, threatened to sue the university on a technicality. His daughter had been charged with plagiarism, and the father didn’t refute that. He wanted the charge dropped, however, because the university notified her via email rather than a pink carbon copy form.
“The old policy says that the student needs to be notified via triplicate — a pink piece of paper. We’ve since gotten rid of that because we have email. So he claimed he was going to sue because his daughter didn’t receive a pink piece of paper,” Hall-Godsey recalls.
After the English Department retained legal counsel and spent a month preparing for the appeal, the young woman and her father didn’t show up.
“The threat to sue was just a bullying tactic,” Hall-Godsey says. “That’s the lesson he was attempting to teach his daughter: Don’t worry, if you plagiarize you can bully your way out of that.”
A changed worldview
When these students get out into the world, Hall-Godsey suspects they are ill-equipped for adult responsibilities.
“I have to believe that students who understand that their education is their responsibility, and that they will suffer the consequences of their own bad choices, will learn how to make better choices,” she says.
“That has to affect them as adults when they get out into the working world.”
Research shows that helicopter parents, by swooping in to solve their children’s problems, create in their kids a sense that the things that happen to them are not their fault.
“It creates what we call an external locus of control,” says Bingham. “We want children to have an internal locus of control, where they own their behavior, and they realize that what they did was their responsibility. And we want parents to realize that if they over-control their child, they’re often helping their child develop a very wrong way of looking at the world and how it works.”
“Helicopter parent” is not a new term. By some accounts it first appeared in Haim Ginott’s 1969 book “Between Parent and Teenager.” But mounting academic research suggests that the rise of this parenting style is a more recent phenomenon.
A number of circumstances over the last few decades might help perpetuate the hovering. Some researchers mark the kidnappings of the late ’70s and early ’80s — such as six-year-olds Adam Walsh of Hollywood, Fla., and Etan Patz of New York City — as the end of the days when kids could roam free. Children who once walked to school alone now don’t even wait at the bus stop alone.
These days, so-called “free-range parents,” who let their kids walk to school or play in the park unsupervised, maybe considered more anomalous than their helicopter counterparts. In the last couple of years, parents in South Carolina, Florida and Maryland were arrested or investigated for child neglect because their children were playing in parks without an adult.
While fear of foul play — or of arrest for neglect — may motivate parents of little ones to hover, what keeps them in a holding pattern when their kids are 18, 19 and 20 years old?
“Technology,” says Kwon, “is partly to blame.” Today’s parents have unprecedented means — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram among countless other platforms — of surveilling their children. And adult children willingly tether themselves to parents through cell phones, dubbed by many “the world’s longest umbilical cord.” College kids who might’ve checked in with parents weekly just 20 years ago now interact with their folks by phone or text multiple times a day. The result is parents who are far more involved in the day-to-day lives of their grown children than those of generations past.
Technology also allows students and their parents to receive instant alerts about crime and other dangers happening on or near school campuses. The constant barrage of unsettling information can feed a parent’s suspicion that their child is alone in an unsafe world that they don’t know how to navigate.
And technology gives those anxious parents instant access to professors. Phone numbers, email addresses, office locations and hours are all online.
Any parent can find a professor’s email address, but not all of them would consider making contact. When Kwon asked her colleagues in the College of Education and Human Development whether they had ever encountered a helicopter parent, those who had met them cited experiences at other schools that typically have a more affluent student body.
“In the 10 years I have taught here, I have had no helicopter parent experiences compared to three incidents while teaching one course at Emory,” says Rhina Fernandes Williams, a clinical assistant professor.
What’s the difference? For one thing, parents of Emory students are more likely to have gone to college themselves. Forty percent of Georgia State students are the first in their family to go to college. A college degree may equip parents to offer their children specific advice on how to succeed in college and to intervene on their child’s behalf. They know how to navigate academia and it doesn’t intimidate them.
“Most of the parents I hear from went to college, or at least they claim they did,” says Hall-Godsey. “They’ll call and say that they received degrees from prestigious universities and that their child’s paper was well-written and should have received an A.”
Parents of younger students may also be more likely to try to argue grades and policies with their children’s professors than those of students further along in their studies. Hall-Godsey frequently hears from parents of students in 1000-and 2000-level classes, but never from parents of students in the 3000-level classes she teaches.
Here in Georgia, the HOPE scholarship might also prompt parents to fight their kids’ grades.
“Students on the HOPE Scholarship have to maintain a certain grade point average. So families feel they really have to argue the grades in order to try to keep that tuition assistance,” says Hall-Godsey.
Different students, different needs
The majority of college students are probably not under helicopter control.
“Based on our research, the prevalence of helicopter parenting is probably a bit overestimated in the mass media,” Kwon says. “That’s partly because of the informant they interview with. If they interview school counselors or administrators, they will hear about all sorts of problems because they are interviewing the people who deal with those issues.”
But the opposite extreme is not ideal either. Williams doesn’t miss the uncomfortable interactions she had with a handful of parents at Emory, but the lack of these parental intercessions at Georgia State points to a different issue. While children of helicopter parents may need to learn to be independent, first-generation college students may need extra initiation into college life that other students don’t.
The university addresses some of these specific needs through the voluntary Gen1: First Generation Success Programs. Its mission is to foster a smooth transition into college for first generation students. But Williams sees a place for professors to help these students individually as well.
“I think the helicopter parents are constantly telling their children, ‘This is how you play school. This is how you win at this college thing, and this is how you win at life.’ At Georgia State, I feel like we need to be those mentors,” says Williams. “That we don’t have as many helicopter parents means we need to be even more intentional and mindful of how we help our students become successful.”
The airspace over Ivy League campuses may be more congested with hovering parents than the skies over downtown Atlanta. Still, faculty at colleges everywhere are meeting more meddlesome moms and dads than they did in decades past. At Georgia State, parent orientation seminars aim to clarify what is and isn’t an appropriate level of involvement.
“I’ve attended a couple of the seminars, and they’re very clear that parents can’t be involved because their children are adults now,” says Hall-Godsey. “They say that you can’t argue for a grade, but you can encourage your student to attend class and those kinds of things.”
But she doesn’t know if all the parents are getting the message. Few students try to resolve the problem directly with their professor before their parents contact Hall-Godsey. “When the problem arises,” Hall Godsey says, “it’s often that we hear from the parents right away. The students very rarely contact us. It’s just all of a sudden we start getting emails from a parent.”
Parents ought to encourage their children to solve these problems, says Bingham, rather than taking the situation into their own hands.
“Research shows parents need to provide a secure base.,” Bingham says. “You can be warm and supportive, but your child still needs to find the way to solve the problem his- or herself. Rather than ‘How can I help?’ there needs to be a switch to ‘What do you think?’ ‘What are you going to do?’”
Sonya Collins is an Atlanta-based independent journalist who covers health, health policy and scientific research. She is a regular contributor to WebMD Magazine, Pharmacy Today, Genome and CURE.
Illustrations by R. Kikou Johnson