Confessions of a (Sometimes) Helicopter Parent
At a recent meeting our provost told a story about receiving a midmorning call from a mother asking if her son was in class.
“I always give my son a wakeup call,” the mother explained, “but he’s not answering.” Our provost — a dean at the time of this experience — told this concerned mother she cannot inform parents if their adult students are in class.
“Student?” the mother exclaimed. “No, he’s teaching the class.”
My colleagues and I groaned. This story could be part of “helicopter parent” legend.
At New Student Orientation, I stress that parents must help their first-year students take responsibility for themselves, advice I hoped to heed when my son, Dylan, started college in August. I realize the challenge, since we’ve raised a play-date generation of children who expect mom and dad to keep coming through. Helicopter parents created this problem, but our “satellite kids” — grown up tethered to us by cell phones and e-mail, those not-so-imaginary apron strings — seem compelled to continue the pattern.
His second week away, Dylan calls me between classes. “What’s another word for ‘great’?”
I almost say, Are you serious?
Instead I ask, “What’s the sentence?”
A recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) reported 86 percent of first-year college students were in frequent contact with their mothers via phone or email, while 71 percent communicated frequently with their fathers. Though there may be much contact, just 13 percent of first years and 8 percent of seniors reported that parents frequently intervened on their behalf — perhaps the difference between parents as “Boeing-Fixed Wings” offering help when needed or “Black Hawks” swooping in to rescue.
Like many of his contemporaries, Dylan has rarely struggled or pined for something. For half his life he’s had two households; for half his life I’ve lived apart from my son. Of course I pick up every time he calls.
“I’m making chicken at Ashley’s apartment,” he says one afternoon. “I talked to Dad this morning. He said I should wash the chicken first. Do I use soap?”
I choke back a laugh. “You probably never want to use soap on food.”
“Just wanted to know for sure,” he says.
An hour later he calls back. “This might be a really dumb question,” he says. “When you put spoons and forks in a dishwasher, do they go up or down?”
“I don’t think it really matters,” I say. “The gals have you doing dishes, huh?”
He lets go his bashful laugh, one he’s had since he was about two — eyes away, chin down.
Dylan finds a ride home the next two weekends. He tells me he’s getting too much homework and not enough sleep. He complains about having to do a ropes course on Sunday morning with his orientation class. I remind him that he’ll have a better transition if he stays at school on the weekends and gets to know his dorm mates. He says his dad will drive him back to school at 7 am the next morning.
“You’re not seriously getting up that early to drive back?” It comes out more accusatory than I intend.
“Yeah, why?” He’s sitting in the recliner, sweatshirt hood pulled over his head.
“Are you planning on coming home every weekend?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“You’re paying for a dorm and meals you’re not using.”
“What does it matter?” he says, annoyed.
“I don’t want to fight about this,” I say.
“You say you don’t want to fight about something but you have a fight in your voice.” He looks at the ceiling.
I say, “You’re right.”
When he leaves, I hold him in a hug that goes on longer than usual. “I just want everything to go well for you,” I say.
He nods. “See you in a few weeks.”
That week I send him a letter:
I want you to understand where I’m coming from when we talk about college. I’ve spent the past 12 years researching and writing about the first year experience. You probably didn’t realize that I’m often invited (and paid) to visit universities and conferences to give workshops on how to help students transition. So when you and I talk, all of my research wells up and wants to scream out at you — NO, do this instead. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m dealing with you, as an individual, and there’s no ONE college experience. Every student has to make his own path.
Dylan calls me to rant about reading Pride and Prejudice for a history class. “It’s not even English, why the hell do I have to read this?” He uses some more choice words about the novel.
My first reaction is to laugh. My boy is swearing in front of me for maybe the first time, and it’s all because of Jane Austen.
I say, “You knew you had to read this novel since the beginning of the semester, right?”
“Yeah, but now I have to read half the book by Friday.”
“What happens if you don’t read it?”
Before we hang up, he says, “What’s the point of any of my classes?”
It’s his first breakdown of the semester. A small part of the college teacher in me panics. A huge part of the mother in me does the same. I see what happens to students — particularly young men — whose drinking or gaming or disinterest or lack of connections helps them fail out of college. If I knew less, I'd feel better right now.
Later that night I get an e-mail from Dylan:
just so you know i dont plan on opening up Pride and Prejudice ever again. in fact i already put it back in the drawer. im going to use this as an “opportunity” to display the wonders of the internet to a teacher who hates technology.
Days later he calls to tell me his history professor said to him in class, “It doesn’t look like you’ve opened your book.”
As a former English major, it pains me that my son is reading online chapter summaries. I say, “Guess you’ll have to run it over with your bike.” It comes out of nowhere, in my pitiful attempt to get my boy to laugh.
And laugh he does. In fact, his whole attitude has changed. He says his psychology professor spent time with him during office hours and explained that all of Dylan’s current courses would fulfill university requirements, no matter what major he chooses. “So if I want to switch from nursing to criminal justice, I can do that.”
It’s exactly what I told him months ago. “That’s good to hear,” I say.
“And Dr. D____ says I can take his psych stats class in the spring instead of math stats.”
“Good to know. Remember, though, that you'll need to be ‘nursing’ on paper to get your scholarships for these first two semesters.”
Did Dr. D____ know that? I think not.
Dylan calls me on a Friday morning. I instinctively look at his class schedule next to my computer screen.
“I couldn’t go to biology today. I hurt my legs.”
“Oh no,” I say. Homecoming week means parties every night.
He starts his story, “It’s a little funny and a little sad.”
He tells me about a house party, that the shot glass was bigger than he thought.
“You weren’t doing shots of hard alcohol were you?” I accuse.
“No, Mom, it was just beer.”
Somehow that’s better?! Maybe in a drinking game it is.
Walking back to a friend’s house, he jumped off a curb into a puddle. “It wasn’t as deep as I expected.”
“I can’t bend one of my legs and my other leg hurts around my calf.”
“So what’s the funny part?” I say in my most assertive voice.
“I’m going to the clinic.”
Next I give him a mini lesson on HMOs.
“I’m going to the clinic Ashley goes to,” he explains.
“Are you prepared to spend thousands of dollars on this clinic visit if it’s not covered by our health insurance?” It’s a slight exaggeration.
I call him back with instructions about where to find the closest Urgent Care. Two hours later he calls from the car. “I see 420 Sarnia Street, but it’s just an old house. That can’t be it?”
“Stop and ask someone. There’s probably only one Urgent Care on Sarnia Street.”
“Wait — it’s West Sarnia, we were on East.”
I had my share of drinking mishaps as an undergraduate: a bruised nose from walking into a glass door, a few skinned knees. No fractured tibia and compressed cartilage from a drunken romp in a mud puddle. Or two trips home for an MRI and x-ray and a consult with an orthopedic surgeon who says to expect a three-month recovery. But my son knows none of this yet.
The Urgent Care doctor sends Dylan back to his dorm in a leg brace and tells him to rest and ice 3-4 times a day. On Sunday he calls to say his knee has ballooned to double its size, and he can’t climb into his lofted bed. I’m ready to speed there and bring him home to OUR Urgent Care. I call my ex-husband, and he reminds me that our darling limped 10 blocks to a homecoming football game on Saturday but didn’t walk across campus to get ice.
He says, “Dylan has got to learn to take care of himself.” Until recently our son wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without consulting his dad.
I call Dylan to see if he found ice cubes. “Did you try making them in your dorm fridge?”
“It takes at least 24 hours to make ice in there.”
I say sternly: “If you’d made some on Friday, you’d have them by now.” My conversation with his dad has made me think I’m one of those awful helicopter mothers raising a co-dependent imp who will never live on his own.
I deliver a cane to my ex’s house so Dylan's classmate can take it back to school. Dylan’s dad has a care package the size of Minnesota, including ice packs and crutches. I add my cane and homemade cookies to his stash without saying anything.
What’s the difference between parents like us and those who become Black Hawks? I visit an online parent's handbook at my son’s school, and I’m drawn to the quiz “Are you a helicopter parent?” I answer questions on “planning and scheduling activities” to “doing college applications” and “going to appointments with your child.” I recall that when I offered Dylan assistance with scholarships, he responded like the pragmatist he is: “Tell me what to do, and I'll do it” — words that would never have passed my lips at 17, even if money was involved. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to take my parents' advice any more than they considered that my success (or that of my seven siblings) was a reflection of their worth as parents. My quiz results: “Your level of involvement seems to indicate a good balance between your child's responsibilities and decisions, and your advice and guidance.” Well that’s a relief.
Dylan e-mails me on a Monday morning about his tuition balance.
I shoot back: “Aren’t you in Biology?”
He tells me that his professor was handing out an op-scan sheet in class, so Dylan hobbled over to ask if there was a quiz and remind the professor he had permission to miss class for an MRI.
The professor said, “The test schedule is on the syllabus.”
Dylan writes me,
it was never mentioned in lecture and i checked D2L every day since the last quiz caught me off guard. I think that C might be a little harder than i thought...
How is it possible that my son, earner of As, product of teacher parents, did not know to pay attention to the syllabus? I blame myself. I send him an e-mail suggesting that he take all of his course syllabuses and write every quiz, paper, and test date on his wall calendar.
“Good idea,” he writes back.
A true helicopter parent would have called up Dr. Anatomy and given him a piece of her mind about springing a test on a kid with a fractured tibia. It crosses my mind to e-mail Dr. A. and suggest he let Dylan retake the test.
“He’s a great student,” I might write, “but he’s having problems with his leg.” A slight understatement.
By Friday Dylan e-mails me that he earned 56 percent on his “surprise” biology test.
I send him information about withdrawing from a course. He’s got 13 days to decide.
“You know I hate to give up. Period,” he writes me.
He calls me while I’m reading his e-mail. “Of course,” I say, “but schools have a safety net for just this situation. You don’t need this lab if you’re not a nursing major. It makes sense to cut your losses.”
“Maybe,” he says. “I’ll call you later.”
He catches me on Friday afternoon. “It’s not like you put a lot of time into biology,” I say. “You skipped at least one lecture a week and didn’t stay for the entire lab.”
“I went to every lab,” Dylan says.
“You know what I mean.”
“Something like that,” he says. I can hear how troubled he is. I won’t tell him that a 4-credit “C” could close some doors on scholarships or certain majors. I’m trying to be sensitive about him failing his first college test, but all I can think is You little dumb-shit.
“You should talk to your biology professor.”
He says, “I think you can withdraw from a class online. You don’t have to talk to the professor. At least I hope not.”
He’s embarrassed, doesn’t want to explain how he could earn a 96 percent on his first test, 76 percent on the next, and then 56 percent. I’m sure he sees the pattern.
“Well,” I say, “you should at least figure out how to withdraw from a class.”
I refuse to do it for him.
Saturday morning I wake up thinking about my boy, and by 7 am I’ve sent Dylan a link on how to drop/add/withdraw, as well as a GPA calculator and information about meeting with his academic adviser. He calls me at 11:00 a.m. He’s just gotten up. “I talked to this girl Amy last night. She was a nursing major, and she switched to English.”
I interrupt “ — English major, so she’s really smart and probably really funny?”
“Yeah.” Dylan laughs.
“She was in chemistry when she changed her major, and she withdrew from the course because she didn’t need that lab. So I’ll withdraw from biology.”
“And Amy’s boyfriend, Kevin, helped me figure out what I’d need in every class to get a 3.5 GPA— ”
“I’m not finished,” he says. “And it looks like I have to get an A in English and psych and my two one-credit classes, but I can get a B in Western Civ and I can keep my scholarship.”
“Great,” I say. “Did you see my e-mail?”
“I sent you a GPA calculator, but if you’ve got Kevin you don’t really need it,” I tease.
He laughs. “Kevin and Amy have been here for six years so they should know everything.”
It occurs to me that my nearly 20 years of experience in higher education, not to mention my decade of expertise in the first year experience, have just been superseded by a super senior. But my satellite kid will likely call me no matter what, one side of my apron loosening while he ties himself to me with the other.
Patti K. See is senior student services coordinator in the Academic Skills Center and a senior lecturer in women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She is the author (with Bruce Taylor) of Higher Learning: Reading and Writing About College (Prentice Hall) (3rd edition forthcoming in 2011) and a poetry collection, Love's Bluff (Plain View Press).