Affirming “Helicopter Parents”: A Look in the Mirror
This is the second of three posts that consider the concept of college helicopter parents. The concept is certainly not new, but it warrants continual examination – and sometimes redefinition. In our first post, we looked at the definition of helicopter parents, as well as some of the motivation behind parental hovering. In this post, we will examine who helicopter parents are and how they operate, and in our final post, we will consider the consequences of helicoptering and suggest some possible ways in which parents might hover productively.
Who are today’s helicopter parents?
Today’s helicopter parents are the baby boomers who have programmed and protected their children since they were born. They are parents who have been involved in every aspect of their children’s activities. Like parents of all generations, they want the best for their children, but they believe that achieving that best requires direct parental involvement.
There are more than a few helicopter parents. According to a recent National Survey of Student Engagement, which surveyed approximately 10,000 students at 24 colleges in the United States, forty percent of freshmen say a parent has intervened to solve a problem for them. The majority of these students are not unhappy to have their parents involved.
A study conducted by the University of Texas/Austin has found that the phenomenon of helicopter parenting crosses racial, ethnic and socioeconomic status. Parents of all kinds, at all levels, engage in hovering of some kind. The same study found that approximately 60% of the hovering in their sample was done by mothers on behalf of their sons. Fathers seemed to “hover” more in the area of grades and finances and were more likely to call top administrators at the college.
Is helicoptering or hovering all bad?
This is the key question. Many colleges and universities (as well as much of public opinion) would suggest that helicopter parents are all bad and they simply need to move out of the picture and leave their college students alone. James Boyle, president of College Parents of America, has suggested that one problem may be the stereotype itself. He states that the “stereotype has been harmful. It created an image that doesn’t lend itself to a dialogue.” Colleges may find it difficult to engage with parents whom they view as in “attack” mode.
We would suggest that parents need to examine carefully why they hover and how they hover and ensure that their hovering is productive and helpful. It is possible to hover effectively, but in many instances this may involve stepping back and reassessing. Both parents and college officials seek the same goal – the long-term success of the student.
The National Survey of Student Engagement mentioned earlier also suggests that students of very involved parents seem to exhibit higher levels of engagement and more “deep learning activities” such as after class discussions and independent research, and these students may be more satisfied with their experiences. However, these students do not necessarily earn higher grades. One speculation was that these parents may actually be more involved because their students are struggling. It is important not to jump to cause-and-effect conclusions, but it is important that parents recognize that their involvement may have consequences.
What type of helicopter are you?
There are all forms of helicopters, and they are used for many purposes. Helicopter parents are most often referred to as “stealth helicopters” or “Black Hawk helicopters” or “attack helicopters”. These are negative terms, for sure, and it is parents who qualify as these types of helicopter who have earned their negative reputation. These are the parents who hover waiting to jump in and intervene on their child’s behalf. Their interference may do just that – interfere with their student’s independence and growth.
Other helicopters, however, may be less ominous. Helicopters are also used to monitor traffic. Traffic helicopters are seldom involved other than observing – and perhaps giving a warning when a different route may be warranted. (Motorists, of course, may or may not heed these warnings.) Helicopters are used in searches to locate lost children or hikers when they need to be rescued. (These helicopters may not actually do the rescuing once the person is located. The actual rescue operation is carried out by others.) Helicopters are used in emergencies to rescue injured victims. (Air transport is usually a last resort – only when other means of transport won’t suffice.) Helicopters may be used to dump water necessary to put out fires. (Again, these are used only on very large or dangerous fires that can’t be managed any other way.)
Parents can hover productively, but it requires that parents examine carefully their own motivations, their student’s true abilities, their goals for their student, and their approaches. It is difficult work and often requires that parents rethink their first instincts (which are often to jump in and rescue immediately). Rather than pretend not to be helicopter parents, parents might do well to redefine what the term helicopter parenting means.
In our final post in this series, we will consider the consequences of helicoptering and suggest some possible ways in which parents might hover productively.