Did you hear the news? Over-parenting is over. So decree the arbiters of lifestyle trends — or, at least, Lisa Belkin, who has been writing about parenting in the New York Times for the better part of this decade. Salon.com’s Amy Benfer notes the irony in Belkin decreeing the end of a trend that, arguably, she had something to do with starting, or at least naming; it was Belkin who wrote the piece “The Opt-Out Revolution,” which suggested that Ivy-League educated mothers were dropping out of the working world in droves to spend more time with their children. Never mind that the statistics didn’t quite support her findings; the anecdata were irresistible, and a trend was born.
In 2003, when Belkin’s initial piece came out, I was balancing work and family much as I am now — my two children were both (finally!) in school, and I was tenured. Frankly, it had never occurred to me to “stay home with the kids” — both my husband’s job situation and my own ambition seemed to demand a full-time career from me, and I was happy to have one. But I put the phrase “stay home with the kids” in quotation marks, because there were certainly times when I did stay home quite a bit. Like other academic mothers, I could sometimes “pass” for a stay-at-home mom: I dropped the kids off at school and/or picked them up most days, I was occasionally available for field-trip duty, and I often contributed baked goods or other supplies for class parties. If I wasn’t one of the most committed PTA parents, I wasn’t the least.
The “helicopter parents” I’ve heard the most about over the years, however, are not the parents of small children. They do need a certain amount of hovering, after all, and American public schools would be lost without the PTA parents who volunteer their time. It’s the parents of high school and college students who earned the sobriquet among my cohort — some years back, before our own kids were ready for college, we started to notice that our students, walking across campus cellphone to ear, were as likely to be talking to their parents as to their friends. (Honest, I don’t eavesdrop on purpose — but, in case you haven’t heard, your cellphone conversation is usually audible to casual passers-by.) We heard the term from the student development folks first — “helicopter parents,” we were told, were hovering over their kids, and that made them more likely to call the dean, the professor, the RA, than an earlier generation of parents, who had generally let their kids work out their own problems. When I was in college, I’d go weeks without talking to my parents on the phone; members of this generation, with cellphones and e-mail and text messaging and skype, sometimes don’t go more than a few hours without being in touch.
And yet I’m not sure I’d even call that (necessarily) overparenting. (Caution: more anecdata ahead.) Maybe I’ve been lucky, but the helicopters haven’t been hovering in my neighborhood. I’ve met with one or two parents over the years, but it’s never struck me as inappropriate or odd — these were cases of either real problems (I once met with the parent of a student who had already left college once on an academic leave and was trying to get back on track) or, more often, real connections that a parent wanted to acknowledge. So I’ve met the parents of advisees and honors students, for example, if they happened to be visiting. They’ve rarely called and even more rarely e-mailed. Maybe I’ve been lucky, or maybe the whole phenomenon was overblown — and, if it’s now coming to an end, I may never know.
As I get ready to send my own daughter off to college this fall, though, I think about those calls. Already I’ve restrained myself from making a couple of necessary contacts for her. I reason that it’s easy for me, but then I remember that it only got to be that way with practice, and I back off. The six months she spent living on the other coast gave me a taste of what it is to be a parent from afar, and there were certainly days I wished I did have that helicopter to hover over her a bit — just to know what was going on, to get a sense of the texture of her life. We’re going through an interesting transition — she’s legally an adult, but not fully independent; I’m her parent, but not her supervisor or manager. At the moment she’s an especially valuable shopping companion, though (she has great taste and an eye for a bargain), so I’m glad to have her back in town for a few weeks.
When the Victorian writer John Ruskin matriculated at Oxford in the fall of 1836, his mother accompanied him. What that story doesn’t reveal, however, is whose idea that was, or whether she intervened with his professors, or, really, anything about their life together. Lifestyle trends may come and go, but the relationship between parent and child will always be somewhat mysterious to those outside it. So, to my daughters’ professors: if you overhear her talking to me, don’t assume I’m overmanaging. Maybe she’s just helping me pick out a new pair of shoes.