By Betsa Marsh
The '60s are swinging, John Kennedy is in the White House, and the Beatles
are on the phonograph. Phyllis McQueen's mom and dad drive her
to Swing Hall, where she and her roommate, a childhood friend,
can't wait to decorate with matching curtains and bedspreads.
"The parents dropped you off, both groups cried, and that
was the end of that," says Phyllis McQueen Keating '65, recalling
the beginning of her freshman year at Miami. "They felt
you would be safe and expected you to get an education."
The '80s are all about "Me," Ronald Reagan is at 1600 Pennsylvania
Ave., and U2 is on the Walkman. Kevin Wheeler's
parents help him tote his stereo and Rush, Styx, and Led Zeppelin
albums into Dodds Hall.
"Right afterwards, there was a certain realization of the reality
of it," Wheeler '87 remembers. "They're gone, you're on your
own, and your life has changed in a pretty dramatic way. It was
several months until I settled in, but I loved it ultimately."
The Millennium is finding its legs, George W. Bush is in
the Oval Office, and Green Day is on the iPod. Jenna Sauber's mom and dad help her move her cell phone, digital camera,
TV, radio alarm, iPod, coffee pot, and fan into Tappan Hall
- her roommate ponies up the microwave. The desk is
reserved for her Dell, where she's downloaded her favorite,
Frank Sinatra, along with the Eagles, James Taylor, Harry
Connick Jr., and Kelly Clarkson.
"My mom is my best friend, and I'm always working on
projects with my dad," the graduating senior says. "I cried,
they cried, but I was also ready to set off on my own."
Like most areas of modern life, launching children into
the world of college has changed, too, over 45 years.
Styles of parenting and definitions of childhood have
evolved, with many observers seeing Boomer parents leaning
in closer to shelter their young for prolonged adolescences.
Others say no, it's only the perception that's changed: Just
because students talk to, e-mail, and instant message their
parents more often doesn't mean today's adults are more
profoundly involved in their children's lives.
However symbiotic the relationship, parents are more of
a factor on campus than ever before: via phone, e-mail, and
in person. Some educators call them hovercrafts, others helicopters,
ready to swoop in at their child's slightest challenge.
Or snowplows, "smoothing everything out so their children have no bumps or falls," suggests
Richard Nault, Miami's vice president
for student affairs.
evolved after 1982,
about the time "Baby on Board"
signs started popping up in car
"The children were
protected and programmed,
with the parents in close and
constant contact," Nault says.
In the '90s, they moved into
their children's classrooms, with e-mails
and text messaging. It was inevitable
that they would come to campus, too.
"Students now are grappling with
problems we didn't have to grapple
with," Nault says. "There are more
diagnosed learning disabilities, more
psychological pressure - we have a
psychiatrist on campus for the first time.
There are more interdisciplinary programs,
more study overseas, just more
complexity than ever before.
"If we view parents as partners helping
their children make very complex
decisions, we can coach them to be
effective coaches of their children. Animosity
isn't going to benefit anyone."
Already, snowplow parents are
becoming legends at Miami. There's the
mother so fearful for the safety of her
football-player son that she requested
he be moved - to the lower bunk.
The mom who changed her daughter's
classes online 25 times - in one week.
The mother who wondered who'd deliver
meals to her son if he were sick.
Who can forget the freshman standing
astride a campus map in the middle
of a sidewalk, calling his mom to help
him find his classroom? And yes - as
apocryphal as it sounds, the legend
seems true - there is a mom who calls
every morning to make sure her son
gets to class on time.
"Students are so bright, so worldly
in so many ways, but yet they really
need to develop independence and
the ability to make good choices," says
Kris Stewart '91, assistant to the vice
president for parent programs.
That is the crux of the snowplow
parent debate: Helping parents see the
difference between solving every issue
for their college-age sons and daughters
and empowering them to make their
own decisions, and their own mistakes,
so they can become self-reliant.
"We know that students are more
successful when their parents are
involved in their lives," Stewart says.
"That means appropriate involvement,
not running their lives. There have to
be boundaries. Rather than put up barriers
to parents, we want to engage and
educate them as they move along in a
It's a bit like asking strangers about bigotry or sexism. Bring up over-protective, over-involved parents of college students, and everybody knows someone else who acts like that - but not me, buster. In a small, online poll last year, 25 percent of some 400 students told career service company Experience Inc. that their parents were "overly involved to the point that their involvement was either annoying or embarrassing." Thirty-eight percent said their parents had either called into or physically attended meetings with academic advisers, and 31 percent reported that their parents had called professors to complain about a grade. On the other hand, 65 percent said they still ask their parents for academic and career advice. How to know if you've crossed the line from constructive coach to intrusive controller? Here are some questions to ponder, from Miami educators and collegeboard.com.
1. Are you in constant contact with your child? If you dial your child once or more every day, we can hear your helicopter blades whirring from here. Let your child call you. If your child calls home at the first sign of stress, you're probably too involved. Students need to learn to negotiate, share, and accept responsibility on their own.
2. Do you contact school administration often? If you're e-mailing or phoning university officials regularly to fix your child's problems, then you're micromanaging. Avoid roommate, social, and grading disputes. "Students should be able to handle any problems where there is not a dramatic power difference," says Richard Nault, Miami's vice president for student affairs. "A roommate issue, for instance. But if a student feels he or she is being sexually harassed by a faculty member, that is a power imbalance, and administrators need to be involved."
3. Do you make your child's academic decisions? If you're picking courses and majors, you're too close. Even worse? Researching or writing a paper for your child. "Students will follow their own passion," says Joe Cox '61, professor of art and associate provost at Miami. "If they are forced into another field by their parents, I have seen students self-destruct just to show their parents."
4. Do you control all financial matters? Experts advise working together to plan a budget and taking a coaching role in money matters. One useful tool is a debit card, so the student has discretion in spending choices, but the parents can set limits on funds available. At Miami, MUlaa is a debit account through the Office of Student Housing and Meal Plan Services that allows students to use their Miami ID to buy everything from books to snacks. And no worries about credit card debt.
5. Do you feel bad about yourself if your child doesn't succeed? Helicopter parents tend to base their own worth on their children's achievement. According to collegeboard.com, one study released by the Society for Research in Child Development in Atlanta states that parents who judge their self-worth by their children's accomplishments report sadness, negative self-image, and diminished contentment with life in general. Also on collegeboard.com, Peter Stearns, provost of George Mason University, reports parents' anxiety and dissatisfaction with life have markedly increased during the past 20 years because of overinvolvement in their children's lives. Such a strong focus on the children can fray a marriage too. "Statistically, after the last sibling graduates from college, one-half of the parents will divorce," Cox says.
6. Do you know the difference between helpful involvement and unproductive hovering? If a child has experienced emotional or physical trauma, step in. Also, if you notice disturbing behavior or personality changes. "When it comes to depression, we never resent a call from the parents," Nault says. "They might say, ‘I'm worried, I'm observing these symptoms.' In the past, we were dismissive of parents. We were almost on the edge of arrogance as a university, that we knew how to raise adolescents and that intrusive, uninformed parents were pushing to be involved in an area that should be the exclusive domain of the university. Parents have wisdom we don't have." Parents, after all, know their child better than anyone else.
Miami starts that education at summer
orientation, separating parents
from their children. During discussions,
the educators ask parents to let
the students resolve any roommate
issues, so they take responsibility for
themselves, instead of having their
parents complain for them. And what
about those ubiquitous cell phones?
Parents, don't call them. Let them call
you. Don't worry. They will.
"This is a generation whose members
love to talk to their parents, and
the students are used to involving their
parents in every situation," Stewart says. "It's nothing for a student
to pull out a cell phone during an
advisory session and call home: ‘Should I
take this class?' "
As for students giving their parents
their computer passwords and
permission to view their grades, Stewart
discourages it. She suggests that students'
private e-mail, Blackboard accounts with
professors, and all types of communication
that should be private remain exactly
that - private.
She also tells parents the hard truth
about grades: "Faculty are not enthusiastic
for parents to call. They want the
students to come in and talk to them, not
parents. Parents are used to intervening
in high-school situations, where often
they could change the outcome of bad
things for their children, but that's not
so easy in the college setting. They have
to learn to be more of a bystander, to
assist and counsel. Parents are shocked
that there's nothing that can be done if a
professor says, ‘This is the grade.' "
Much of the grade pressure comes
from parents of pre-law, pre-med, and
pre-dentistry students, "who want to
hold the university accountable for their
son's or daughter's level of success," says
Joe Cox '61, professor of art and associate
provost. "There's always someone else to blame, someone else who's responsible.
Some parents attribute too much
to grades, too little to learning and
For their part, most Miami students
are now "consumer-type
clients," Cox says. "If something goes
wrong, he or she will tell the parents,
and they'll make it right. If they can't,
they have a lawyer who will. Parents'
anxiety for their children has gone
up as the job market has tightened.
Everybody wants the advantage, and
they're willing to go to any length to
get it, including calling a legislator to
have them contact us."
In one area, Cox sees improvement.
With the new online, real-time
registration, the number of parental
complaints about access to classes has
plummeted from 150 calls or e-mails
per semester to about 10. The computer
system gives priority depending on
a student's closeness to graduation.
The system also electronically tracks
changes in registration. In other words,
there's an e-trail when a student
drops a class because it's at 8 a.m. or
after 2 p.m. on Friday, for instance.
"I can look at the record and say,
‘Ma'am, your son had all his classes
- he didn't like the time,' " Cox says.
No question, life in a more connected
world has transformed every aspect
of the college experience.
"We believe students should
become independent citizens while in
college," Stewart says. "On the other
hand, the reality of the electronic age is
so much different now. We didn't have
those choices. If my parents had had a
cell phone in their hands, maybe they
would have called me more."
In the '60s, Phyllis McQueen would
run down the hall to grab the one
phone on her floor when the switchboard
buzzed her room to announce a
call. "You didn't talk too long because
someone else was expecting a call."
In the '80s, Kevin Wheeler would
pick up the handset on his room
phone every Saturday or so to talk
to his family. "Long distance was
expensive - you didn't call just to
express this thought or pass along
Today, Jenna Sauber chats online
with her mother several times a day
and follows up with a call from her
cell phone nearly every day. She and
her dad speak in the evenings. The
journalism major and her parents
often "shoot each other a text or an
e-mail. But it's not checking in - we
both want to talk to each other. I love it
when my mom calls."
It's this other side of snowplow
parenting - snow bunnies who
love the bonding - that can seem
strange to older graduates.
"I am amazed at the number of
students who say, ‘My parents are
my best friends, and I call them every
night.' That's a foreign concept to me,"
Nault says. "But we can't impose our
childhood lens on these students."
For Sauber, who is graduating and
moving to Washington, D.C., big transitions
are leading to big discussions.
"My parents say it's hard to know
what place I want them to have - ‘Do
you want us to tell you what to do,
or not?' I'm 22, but I still need them
financially, and I still need their advice.
We're still figuring all this out."
Betsa Marsh, a Cincinnati-based
journalist, is a helicopter aunt who doesn't
hover, preferring instead to swoop in for a
sporadic bit of spoiling now and then.
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