Beyond the Jokes on 'Helicopter Parents'

September 9, 2009

When I became an associate dean for undergraduate programs not quite four years ago, I did not know the term “helicopter parent,” even though I’d sent my only child off to college not long before. By the time I’d had the job for a year, the label was so ubiquitously present that I knew exactly why a PowerPoint conference presentation that began with a swooping helicopter, complete with soundtrack, brought down the house.

But there’s something disturbing about the easy laughter we all shared in that conference session. The term “helicopter parent,” like many catch phrases that get a lot of attention for a time, masks issues at least as much as it exposes them. The label was coined to describe the behavior alternatively referred to as “overparenting” or “death-grip parenting,” when parents are thought to be intrusive and overinvolved in their college children’s lives. To be sure, the term “helicopter parent” — or its more dire “Black Hawk parent” — occasionally may be useful as a shorthand reference for the kind of parent my mother would have called a “buttinski,” and I hasten to acknowledge that these parents exist.

I’ve had parents insist that I create in two weeks a tailored study abroad program; demand that a class in music be allowed to substitute for one in sociology; and argue that I should change a course grade because an exam covered material from a book the student had failed to obtain. The parent of a student whose report back home omitted crucial details began a letter to me with “Well, I’m not impressed.” I get as frustrated as the next administrator with these parents, and every bit as tempted to apply a sweeping — or swooping — label that appears to explain them.

More often than it fosters enlightenment, however, I think the “helicopter” label hinders understanding. This act of labeling imposes a simplistic model of parenting that often conceals helpful parental behavior. A different version of what is called “helicopter parent” would prove useful rather than detrimental to the work of college and university administrators charged with nurturing the lives of thousands of students. As administrators, we need to be less willing to dismiss parents with an all-encompassing label and be more attuned to the subtleties of student lives that these parents might help us identify.

As with so many of the issues I deal with as an associate dean for undergraduate programs, my perspective on helicopter parents began with my own experience as a mother. My only child had recently begun college when he surprised his father and me — and himself — with an emotional and psychological meltdown during his first months as a college student. In retrospect, the tone of our son’s voice in the late night of his first day in the dorm should have been enough to signal that there was already something much more amiss than a computer glitch. We all interpreted it as the anticipatory homesickness we had known to expect. I still can’t hear the opening strains of the Mozart ring-tone that signaled his incoming call without a tightened stomach and caught breath, somatic memories of the beginning of a very difficult, often frightening, period of time.

Nothing before then had pointed to trouble. For 18 years, things had sailed by with enviable smoothness. My son had been serious and organized, hardworking and ambitious, creatively gifted, loving, and academically successful. In this first phone call from his new college home, I heard in his voice “I miss you,” I heard “I’m scared,” I heard “what if I need you?” I did not hear, “something is desperately wrong and already I can tell.” Most certainly I did not hear inklings of what eventually would be identified as a mood disorder. It wasn’t long before I made an emergency plane trip to withdraw our child from college, clear out a dorm room, and begin learning how to face the subsequent uncertainty, diagnosis, and recovery. I’m still a little afraid to be blithely optimistic about what the future holds, although for some time all has been well. It took three years to reach the point of sleeping soundly and functioning normally, and these seem like sufficient gifts for now.

What I learned from these experiences informs my job almost every day. As I became increasingly concerned about my child, I was the parent who called the dean, who e-mailed counseling center personnel, and who alerted an adviser. Although I sought only safety and security for my child at a critical time, I know that some administrator might have written me off as a helicopter parent. My most obnoxious self might have been viewed as thwarting a college’s attempts to foster my son’s maturation, to use another common argument against helicopter parenting.

What I know from my personal experience as a mother and from my professional experience as a dean listening to students and parents over the last few years, however, is a cautionary message for administrators: Don’t be too hasty in applying a label that might make you miss the signals of a student in need of extra support. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some interference may have helped save the lives of certain students, my own included.

Practically speaking, how does one distinguish the overbearing, interfering “helicopter parent” of legend from the concerned parent who might help administrators successfully intervene on behalf of a troubled student? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Consider carefully the issues at hand. Is it about a parking permit or violation? An unavailable course? An unresponsive faculty member? These topics may hint at a parent with a tendency to be too involved in the daily challenges of a student’s life. But even these issues require careful listening for the undercurrents beneath surface rhetoric. The parent worried about parking may have a student with a physical disability, for example, and that’s far different from the parent whose child would prefer to walk less than a block but is quite capable of doing so.

2. Develop questions and a communication style that help elicit useful information. One problem with a too-easy label is that it can keep us from hearing subtle messages. Beginning a conversation with “How can I help?” or “Why don’t you tell me about the problem you’re having?” rather than “Here’s how I see your situation” will invite more revealing narratives and keep defensive postures at bay. The micromanaging parent will just want you to do his or her bidding. The concerned parent will welcome your effort to help solve a problem.

3. Do your homework. Often there will be something in a student’s record that provides a helpful context. There may be a recurring history of a certain kind of trouble, a casual mention of an event that could help explain subsequent reactions, or a pattern of behavior that sheds light on current problems. Check the written record and confer with others who may have experience with the same student. (I am not a fan of consulting social networking sites, but that is another topic for another time.)

4. Be willing to decide that the parent really does need to let go. Sometimes a helicopter parent is a helicopter parent. When this is the case, part of an administrator’s job is to help the parents trust that you are acting in their child’s best interest, and help the students trust themselves to be confident in their own decisions.

Discerning the line between the overinvested “helicopter parent” and the concerned parent is more art than science, of course, and it requires being attuned to the subtleties of both parents’ and students’ language and manners. It probably takes more time than most of us think we have. But it also just might be the difference between losing a student and alienating parents, who already may wonder what it is that colleges and universities actually do with their tuition, and guiding the student and parents toward the independent decision-making that is part of a college educational. Call it a teachable moment.

Bio

Pamela R. Matthews is an associate dean and professor of English at Texas A&M University.

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