Helicopter parents Hover Over Campus

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.

cartoonHowever 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.

Millennial parents evolved after 1982, about the time "Baby on Board" signs started popping up in car windows.

"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."

cartoonAlready, 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 student's development."

You might be a helicopter parent if...

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 maturing."

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 that observation."

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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