Information for the parents of college students
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Affirming “Helicopter Parents”: Redefining the Title

This is the first 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 this post, we look at the definition of helicopter parents, as well as some of the motivation behind parental hovering.  In our next 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.

 Helicopter parents have a poor reputation.  Actually, that is probably a polite way of putting it.  In most of the higher education world, when the term “helicopter parents” is used, it is not used kindly.  Even parents who engage in “helicoptering” don’t like to identify themselves as such, “I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, but . . . ”  The truth is that many parents do hover, but some do it better than others.  The concept itself isn’t necessarily bad, but the extremists have given it a bad name.  Perhaps what needs to happen is that more parents need to redefine what it means to be a helicopter parent and learn to do their hovering productively.

What do most people mean when they refer to helicopter parents?

 The term “helicopter parents” is usually used to refer to parents who are too involved in their child’s life.  The term is not limited to college parents; some parents begin helicoptering early in their child’s life.  This helicoptering, or hovering, is often detrimental to the growth and maturity of the child.  In many cases the title is apt, the behavior is accurate, and the detrimental effect is real.  Parents are probably not helping their child when they hover too closely.

At the college level, helicopter parents more specifically micromanage their student’s life, virtually walk through the day with their student (via cell phone, texting, Twitter, or Facebook), jump in and rescue their child and make decisions for their child.  They call the student daily, or multiple times each day (perhaps to wake the student up in the morning), contact professors for the student, choose courses, edit papers (or write papers?!) intervene in roommate issues, deal with computer problems and faculty conflicts, and call school administrators to advocate or intervene.

Is it any wonder that colleges are sending parents the message that they need to “back off”?

Why have college parents adopted the helicopter approach?

 Parents may hover over their children for any number of reasons.  However, one statement is true of all helicoptering or hovering parents – they want the best for their child.  Parents want to do everything that they can to ensure that their student has a successful college experience.  It is natural to want to protect and advocate for your child.  The goal is the same for all parents, although the motivations may be different.  Many parents may not even recognize their own motivation.

  • Parents have been sent messages all through their child’s life that students of involved parents do better in school.  Study after study has suggested that when parents are involved in their student’s experiences in elementary, middle and high school, that the students do better academically and are more likely to attend college.  Suddenly, when students enter college, the message changes, but parents’ habits may not change.
  • Some parents feel they need to protect their child from the dangerous and harsh world.  This generation has been the most protected in history.  Today’s students are the children who grew up with car seats, child safety locks, seat belts, bike helmets.  They were driven or escorted to activities and friends’ homes and seldom walked the streets alone – day or night.
  • Some parents continue to be involved because they have always been involved in planning and programming their child’s life.  They have scheduled day care, play dates, dance lessons, sports camps, scout meetings, after school activities, day camps, swimming lessons, riding lessons, and youth activities.  Parents have spent countless hours carpooling their child to all of these activities.
  • Some parents may be overinvolved in their student’s college life because they are overreacting to their own parents’ hands-off approach.  A generation ago, most parents had little to do with their student’s college experience.  Other than move-in day, Parents’ Weekend, and graduation, parents left most of what happened to students at college to the students.
  • Some parents may be overinvolved in their students’ lives simply because technology allows them to do so.  With the advent of cell phones, texting, social media, video conferencing, instant messaging, Facebook, and tweeting, it is possible for parents and students to be in almost constant contact.  Parents may feel that they need to take advantage of all possible avenues of communication simply because they are available.
  • Some parents may be overinvolved because they feel that they need to protect their investment.  The costs of college are monumental, and parents may feel that they need to be sure that they “get their money’s worth” by directing their student’s experiences.
  • Some parents are overinvolved because they don’t trust that their student can succeed without their intervention.
  • Some parents hover simply because they do not understand what is happening in their child’s college world.  They hover in order to gain information to put their minds at ease.
  • Some parents may be overinvolved because they equate hovering with concern.  If they are concerned about their student, they feel that they need to be doing something about their concerns.
  • Some parents hover for themselves.  They may know on some level that their child will be fine, but they need the involvement for themselves – they are not able to let go.

All of the reasons that parents hover are legitimate, all grow from a genuine desire to help their student, and all require a new vision of the parental role in the college experience.  It is helpful, as a parent, if you examine your own motivations for being involved as well as your own level of involvement to discover where you fit on the helicoptering spectrum.

In our next post, we will consider who helicopter parents are and how they operate, and in our final post, we will consider how parents can turn the helicopter parent label into a positive affirmation.  We will consider more carefully the consequences of hovering and ways in which parents might hover productively and proudly.

Related Posts:

Affirming “Helicopter Parents”: A Look in the Mirror

 Affirming “Helicopter Parents”: How to Hover Constructively

Your Role as a College Parent: Sideline Coach – Part 1

Yes, You’re a College Parent, But What Exactly Does That Mean?

2 comments

1 Vicki { 08.19.09 at 10:03 am }

Thanks for your comment, Katie. Portable Parent seems like a neat idea and something good for both parents and their college students. I think a lot of students are less resistant to parental involvement than we think. They’ve had their parents involved all of their lives and they’ve come to rely on that involvement. The difference may be in the form in which that involvement comes. Something novel, such as Portable Parent, may be just the thing. Students can use it when they need it, and step away as they gain independence. Thanks for sharing an additional tool for parents.

2 Katie Schwartz { 08.17.09 at 12:43 pm }

Your points about parents wanting to assist their children are quite valid. Their children pften are resistant to parental involvement, though.
One way both parents and children can benefit is through a pre-written book of valuable information for students, which parents can add to. One such book is at http://www.portableparent.com. An extra benefit to this is that it is downloadable, a real benefit when lugging items to the top floor of a dorm! Portable Parent offers “instant information, 24/7, with a parent’s insight”, and is there when the student wants the information.

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