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Helicopter Parents

Helicopter parents delaying children’s adulthood…indefinitely

This is a quick, thoroughly unscientific quiz for parents of high school students:

1)   Did your hardworking scholar turn in a research paper he’s never laid eyes on; you know, the one you “helped” him with?

2)   Do you spend more time on Instagram and Twitter than a Kardashian, keeping tabs on little Madison’s BFFs and boyfriends?

3)   Has the principal’s office toyed with the idea of getting a restraining order against you?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you could be a “helicopter parent.” If you answered “yes” to every one, you may want to tweak your strategy before you become the parent of a college student.

Patricia Somers, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration at The University of Texas at Austin, has spent years studying this flourishing parent species and was among the first scholars to investigate the trend. Her research illuminates how and why levels of parent involvement have increased worldwide over the past two decades. She has investigated categories of micromanaging parents, and can offer a few reasons it may be better for parents to ease up on the hovering.

Coined in the early 1990s and made popular by the media, “helicopter parent” refers to a parent who tends to be overly involved and hyper-prone to intercede in their children’s lives.

To obtain data, Somers and her fellow researchers surveyed academic and student affairs professionals at four-year universities nationwide. The results serve as a cautionary tale for parents of high schoolers, and a wakeup call for those with “kids” in college.

“Several cultural shifts over the past 25 years or so may explain this change in parent behavior,” says Somers. “First and most obvious are the technological advances that allow people to stay connected 24/7. It’s just extremely easy to cross the line between being involved at a reasonable level in a child’s life and micromanaging.”

“In high school, at a time when it’s critical, developmentally, for youth to be establishing their autonomy, some parents are behaving as though they’re still raising a third grader.” – Dr. Patricia Somers

Because of a steady increase in the number of terrorist attacks and school shootings, a lot of parents perceive the world as a much more dangerous place than they experienced as children. They worry, sometimes to excess, about their kids’ wellbeing and don’t feel entirely comfortable entrusting their children’s safety to others, says Somers. This leads to more hovering.

Also, research suggests that some mothers and fathers may be rejecting the less attentive child-rearing style of their own parents. And, says Somers, people are choosing to have fewer children and, as a result, lavishing much more attention on one or two offspring regardless of age.

The quest for the best may begin with the scramble to score the most exclusive preschool (must teach Mandarin and be gluten-free); then comes calculus tutoring from a MacArthur fellow, chef-prepared organic lunches delivered to school, and demands that the child be catcher on the baseball team.

This gentle guidance and protection often stretch right through college graduation, a job search, and into the “child’s” employment, delaying adulthood indefinitely.

“One of the first things we discovered,” says Somers, “is that helicoptering is not an exclusively middle- and upper-class phenomenon, as many assume. All income levels are represented to some extent, as well as both genders and every race and ethnicity.”

Somers’ research also shows that most helicopter parents fall into five broad categories:

1)   CONSUMER ADVOCATES – They see each phase of the college experience, from application to diploma-in-hand, as a business transaction and want the most bang for their buck. They push hard to get scholarships or other financial awards for their children and may expect what amounts to an assurance from the university that a degree in X will equal a job in Y, with a salary of Z. To keep tabs on their investment, they may expect staff and administration to overlook a minor technicality called the Family Rights and Privacy Act and produce progress reports on demand.

2)   EQUITY OR FAIRNESS ADVOCATES – They might seem to be lobbying for fairness and equality for all students, but more often they are demanding better, not equal, treatment. The fairness advocate may also have become well versed in state and federal entitlements for their child and be well prepared to argue the legalities of what they deem unfair treatment

3)   VICARIOUS COLLEGE STUDENTS – The most well-known, they are simply parents who either did not enjoy their own “golden four” years of college and want to make up for missed time; or they did have a great time at college and are determined to relive the fun. These parents tend to behave more like a best buddy than a guardian and show up for every football game and mixer. They often want to accompany their child to classes, labs, and study sessions.

4)   TOXIC PARENTS – These are parents with considerable psychological issues. They’re controlling, negative, and often try to live their children’s lives while at the same time one-upping the child.

5)   SAFETY PATROL PARENTS – This is a group that’s grown rapidly and includes parents who are notably preoccupied with the safety of their children. They frequently talk with campus staff about safety concerns and may even request copies of floor plans, campus emergency procedures, and safety policies. They can feel very helpless once the child is out of the home, and with each shooting, bombing, or other act of violence that makes the news, they become more afraid, more insular, and feel more protective of their family.

“In high school, at a time when it’s critical, developmentally, for youth to be establishing their autonomy − learning how to handle setbacks, deal with frustrations, and make their own decisions − some parents are behaving as though they’re still raising a third grader,” said Somers. “Before the child even leaves for the university parents can intercept mail containing computer passwords and login IDs, and then go online to fill out the profile for roommate matching, for example.

“We’ve heard that more than a few take the initiative to ‘research’ their children’s roommates on Facebook and Twitter, masquerade as their child online, and ask for a roommate reassignment. It’s not uncommon for the parent to register online for the student, follow the child’s academic progress, monitor most of the online communication from the university to the student, and compose and answer e-mail.”

If you’re scratching your head wondering how a 22-year-old who’s not able to fill out routine applications is ever going to adjust to a real-world job and independent adult life, then you share that concern with university administrators, faculty, and staff who deal with helicopter parents.

According to Somers, many universities have already started using research feedback to educate and support helicopter parents and wean students. There are separate orientations for parents and students, separate social events for “vicarious college students,” newsletters that offer tips for gradually disengaging, lists of suggested reading material, and policies that keep university staff from discussing an issue with a parent without student consent.

As she speculates on the trend reversing, Somers points out that many of the reasons for its appearance are not going away any time soon. Life in the modern world can be dangerous and children’s safety will continue to be an issue. Consumerism and the desire for a good deal probably won’t disappear. Technology advances will likely make “stalking” or intrusion even easier.

“The name for the phenomenon keeps morphing – now we have ‘snowplow parents’ and ‘lawnmower parents,’ who never stop smoothing the path for their kids, and in Scandinavia they’re called ‘curling parents,’” said Somers. “But the behavior largely remains the same. I don’t anticipate the debate over ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ parent involvement winding down in the near future.”

Photo by: Marsha Miller

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