Take Me With You! The Helicopter Parent Goes to College
Apparently, some helicopter parents haven’t received the memo that the whole point of helicoptering is to get your child into a prestigious college. Once that objective has been attained, what’s the point of hovering? Even if admission to the college of one’s dreams remains elusive, I wonder what exactly is to be gained by continuous micromanagement of an adult child’s life.
I’ve recently learned several new terms for parents who can’t seem to leave their college-bound children to their own devices. Satellite parents are (literally) the distant relatives of helicopter parents. They hover over their children, but they do so from a greater distance. Curling parents is a term coined in Sweden and is analogous to the sport of curling. These parents rush ahead of their kids, sweeping their path clear of obstructions, even of the miniscule variety. Blackhawk parents add an element of stealth to their mission. These are parents who call professors or deans or RAs to solve problems or address concerns their too precious children should be able to handle independently. These parents make sure to say, “Don’t tell my child I called” or “My son will kill me if he knows I stepped in.”
I tried to find a blackhawk parent to interview for this post, but no one will admit to being one. It’s always someone else who is the crazy parent. When you’re the one calling the shots, you’re simply doing right by your child.
Peter Bogucki, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs at Princeton University’s School of Engineering, has encountered some of these parents. He says they are not the norm, which is fortunate because dealing with just a few of them can be inordinately stressful.
Prior to his current position, Bogucki served as Director of Studies at one of Princeton’s residential colleges. “I was once issued an ultimatum on a Friday afternoon by a father whose freshman son was incompatible with the roommate Princeton had selected for him. The school year had just begun and the kids hadn’t had much of a chance to acclimate to each other’s idiosyncrasies. Still, the Dad told me in no uncertain terms he was giving me until Monday to find his son a new room and a new roommate or else. I informed him that his demand could only be met if Princeton were to build a new wing onto the college over the weekend. Shortly thereafter I decided it was time to change jobs.”
There are a few tip-offs that alert college personnel a parent could be trouble. “Right out of the gate, if a parent says ‘we’re applying to such and such a college,’ take cover,” says Bogucki. “It’s also a bad sign when a parent accompanies his or her child to the first meeting with the faculty advisor. I met one parent who insisted his son enroll in a math course he had already placed out of. It was the parent, not the child, who wanted the easy A.”
The University of Vermont recently found a way to deal with this problem. They now employ “parent bouncers” who are trained to redirect adults who try to attend their children’s sessions. I’m glad some jobs were created to fill this growing need, but the fact that this need exists at all baffles me.
Some colleges do send signals inviting parent involvement, but some parents misread those signals. Perhaps they miss their own college experience and want to relive it through their children. Also, because parenting seems to have become a profession rather than simply a phase of life, it just goes on and on. Careers can last well into old age. They don’t end when a task is completed.
Technology has enabled parents to remain so involved in the lives of their children they can’t observe reasonable boundaries. Visit collegeconfidential.com some time. The site is replete with regrets from kids who “friended” their parents on Facebook. There is no end of whining about parents who call every day or insist on skyping at all hours. If only these kids could know the joy of living in a dorm with a single pay phone on every floor. If only they could feel the love of a father like mine, who refused to accept the charges when I called collect once too often.
To their credit, most college students are mortified by parents who cling to them by their fingernails. By the time these “trophy kids” as they are now called, break away from home they are going to have claw marks all over them.
But they’re not the only ones suffering from the smothering. What about the parents themselves? This can’t be healthy. Margaret K. Nelson, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College and author of “Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times,” says it’s time to focus on what these parents are doing to themselves.
In a recent Washington Post essay, she wrote, “I’m more worried about the mothers than I am about their kids. Many of the helicopter mothers I’ve spoken to have told me, often with pride in their voices, that their daughters are their best friends. At first, I wondered why these women – some of them in their late 40s or 50s – wouldn’t prefer to spend their free time with people their own age. But as I looked more closely at the way they are tackling parenthood, I understood: they have no free time.”
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