Discussion of -- and complaints about -- the rise of "helicopter parents," whose involvement in their children's lives lies somewhere between excessive and obsessive, has reached a fever pitch over the past few years. This is particularly true in academe, where professors charge that the trend contributes to the ignorance or laziness of today's students, while parents wonder how much is too much when it comes to guiding their collegiate offspring. Students, on the other hand, may not see the problem at all.
In her new book, Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (New York University Press), Margaret K. Nelson explores the roots of helicopter parenting, or "parenting out of control," finding a strong correlation between parental involvement and social class. Parenting Out of Control discusses the strategies and goals common to various types of parents, and the consequences (both positive and negative) for their children, through college and beyond.
Nelson, who is A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College, answered Inside Higher Ed's e-mailed questions about the book and the implications of her research, particularly for academe.
Q: What is the relationship between social class and parenting style, and to what do you attribute it?
A: My findings that “parenting out of control” predominates among elite, highly educated parents (what I call the professional middle class) and “parenting with limits” predominates among less privileged parents (both working class and middle class) confirm and update a long tradition of social science research that has found different styles of child rearing within different social classes.
There are material reasons for these differences. In contrast with parenting with limits, parenting out of control is both a time-consuming and an expensive strategy: it relies on workplace flexibility so that parents can accommodate to their children’s scheduled and unscheduled needs; it also relies on access to sufficient resources to purchase excellent education, to pay the fees for a wide array of extracurricular activities, and to obtain new technologies like laptop computers and cell phones. All of this time and expense is designed to ensure that these children will be able to retain, and reap the benefits of, a privileged position in society.
In addition, parents learn and practice child rearing styles within social groups, as ideas circulate in the media and among cliques of young mothers gathering on the playground. The practices that get established -- the degree to which parents begin to use a language of “choice,” for example -- may have less to do with what can be afforded than with what other people within a circle of friends and relatives find appropriate. Both parenting out of control and parenting with limits are thus reinforced by observation, discussion, and competition within the groupings of a highly stratified society.
Q: How do you define "parenting out of control"? How does it contrast with "parenting with limits"?
A: These phrases are summary characterizations of two styles of child care as directed at (mostly) adolescent children. The first of these, “parenting out of control,” is meant as a pun, with its several meanings. The phrase connotes the breadth of parental influence among elite families: parents who enroll their children in the full round of extracurricular activities, assess every academic achievement, and hoard advantages thereby create lives in which every moment is designed to contribute to securing a competitive place in the world; no sphere of life is left untouched. The phrase also captures the depth of parental influence: parents build relationships with children based on intimacy, on being available, on staying connected, on intense oversight, and on friendship. The phrase refers as well to the absence of external constraints imposed on children. Of course elite parents set some limits on their children’s actions. But some of those limits go unstated, and at least some of those limits are up for grabs. As one parent said, her approach is “1-2-3-maybe.” Finally, the phrase makes reference to the availability of immense amounts of time and money that frames an elite style of care. The outcome of all this effort is ongoing, highly personalized, negotiated, moment-to-moment control. The consequence of all this effort is that parents and children alike might come to feel that parenting has gotten out of control.
The phrase “parenting with limits” conveys something quite different. It refers to a parenting style with less intense relationships (which allow children more occasions to demonstrate who they are rather than who they might become), clearer restrictions on behaviors, and more definitive constraints on the time and energy devoted to parenting.
Q: How does the (perceived) increase in the difficulty of getting into college (particularly at an elite institution) impact parenting styles?
A:US News & World Report has much to account for in heightening a sense of competition for elite institutions. Each year’s list rearranges hopes and aspirations. A different set of numbers also matters. Children born during the post-World War II baby boom are now themselves parents with children poised to enter college. That second baby boom produced a high school graduating class that was expected to peak in 2009 at about 2.9 million after a 15-year climb. As a result, entrance into elite colleges is, in fact, tougher than it used to be.
But the increased pressure placed on children can not be attributed to these two sets of numbers alone. Financial insecurity, increasing economic inequality, and a rapidly changing world which constantly requires new skills – all of these constitute additional reasons for parents to worry about their children’s futures. Parents who want to prepare their children for competition while ensuring that they be flexible enough to meet new challenges, understandably feel a need to remain aware, to hover, to interfere, and to guide.
Q: Have parents become too involved in the process of their children's selecting and applying to colleges? What is the appropriate level of involvement?
A: My concerns center less on possible psychological harm than on social class inequities. The children of the elite have access to a whole range of resources – small counselor-student ratios, private college coaches, tutoring for SATs, excellent schools – all of which are geared to the college-admission process. These privileges – even more than the interference of parents – are what make significant differences in access to elite institutions.
My goal in Parenting Out of Control isn’t to say how to parent, but rather to understand the origins and dynamics of different parenting styles. Given that children – and parents – differ as individuals we might well ask, what, after all, does “too involved” mean? It can not mean the same thing for every parent and every child. And the same level of involvement can not be “appropriate” for all parents and children.
Q: You note that "professional middle-class parents" are likely to have their children tested for learning disabilities if they don't "perform at a satisfactory level," and to request that schools make special accommodations if any such disabilities are discovered. How does this affect colleges and their students?
A: The increasing acknowledgment of, and accommodations to, differences in abilities is one of the great, ongoing, educational achievements of the twenty-first century. My syllabuses – and those of my colleagues – more often than in the past invite students to discuss their particular needs, whether they consist of extra time for taking exams or extra support with assignments. Burdensome as these accommodations sometimes may be, they serve the important goal of equity. But as is the case for other social goods, these accommodations rest on awareness and knowledge. As a professor, I worry less that some students get special help than that this help may not be available (because it is not insisted on) for all who need it.
Q: You write that students at Middlebury "report... that they do not believe communicating with their parents more than ten times a week is too much." How does this frequent communication seem to impact students -- and what contrasts do you see between the "children of the professional middle class" and the "(relatively few) low income students," who have a somewhat different relationship with their parents?
A: This was indeed a surprising finding. But it does not necessarily indicate a problem. Communication – even daily communication – with parents might offer students significant benefits.
Surveys conducted by my colleague, Barbara Hofer of the psychology department at Middlebury College, find no social class differences in frequency of contact between students and parents. However, both my experience and my research suggest that the content of that contact is very different for the children of the professional middle class than it is for my less privileged students. Both sets of students rely on parents for advice, consolation, and a sense of connection to home. But my more privileged students, are more likely to get parental input on their homework assignments and editorial assistance on papers; this is another form of inequity. By way of contrast, my lower-income students report not only that they are earning significant amounts of money to relieve their parents of the economic burden of having a child in college, but occasionally that they are actually sending money home. Indeed, for them, support is more often a two-way street.
Q: You note that the National Survey of Student Engagement has found that the children of so-called helicopter parents report greater satisfaction with their college experience and see greater academic gains. Do these findings mesh with your own experience and research?
A: There is no surprise here. Children of “helicopter parents” are children of the elite. They have learned how to communicate with professional middle-class adults; they are comfortable with the discussion of intellectual ideas; and they know how to negotiate with authority until they have their needs met. Those who come to college from a less privileged background might have different satisfactions from their experiences, including a stronger sense of self-reliance. Some of these satisfactions might pale in comparison to the struggles they face as they seek to catch up with those with elite secondary educations. Even so, they often perform extremely well and their achievements are, more often, entirely their own.