Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Helicopter Parents: College and Beyond

The Emory University tour for prospective families traversed the beautiful Atlanta campus on a fragrant spring day a few years ago, ultimately persuading my son that this was the ideal place for his college experience. When the admissions tour guide led us around Emory‘s state-of-the-art medical complex, she happened to point out a helipad for emergency transport.

Never able to resist a comic opportunity, I chimed in, “Is that for the helicopter parents?” The sophomore tour guide seemed flustered by my unorthodox question, and some nervous parents glared. But the wiser parents flashed knowing smiles—-and all the teenagers giggled. At the time, I meant only to poke fun at parents who micromanage their high school students through the college process. I did not yet realize that for many families today, the “helicopter parents” phenomenon continues throughout the college years…and even into the careers of emerging young adults!

A recent article in US News & World Report, “10 Reasons Why Parents Should Never Contact College Professors,” confirms that helicoptering can and does continue way beyond dorm dropoff. No wonder freshman orientations include presentations about “letting go” for parents, and schedules designate a specific time when “PARENTS DEPART.”

It’s not just because faculty and students find hovering parents overbearingly annoying. A recent study by psychologist Neil Montgomery at Keene State College in New Hampshire suggests that students with hyper-managing parents tend to be less open to new ideas and actions, and may be more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious, compared to students with more distant parents.

I just finished reading The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up, co-authored by Barbara K. Hofer, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont and journalist Abigail Sullivan Moore. This thought-provoking 2010 book was based on a 2005 study at Middlebury and a 2006 study at the University of Michigan.The authors expand on the helicopter concept by demonstrating the role technology plays to enable parental micromanaging of students’ lives when they no longer live at home. Many parents are in constant contact with their kids at college via cell, text, email, Facebook, and Skype.

The Middlebury and University of Michigan studies indicate that many parents edit their children’s papers via email, a behavior that was not generally feasible during our snail mail past. Some parents intervene in academic decisions such as choosing majors or contacting professors to dispute grades. Middle school parent-teacher conference redux?

Technology-enabled hypermanaging even continues into young people’s career search activities. The studies revealed that some Moms and Dads actually log in with their kids’ passwords and fill out job applications, write resumes and cover letters, and even contact employers on behalf of their grown children. Oy! Where does it end? The authors concede that overparenting is passionate parenting taken a little too far. Many Baby Boomers, having fewer children later in life, view our progeny as so “precious” that we try to protect them from risks in this decade’s competitive college process and the depressed job market. Few actually become Blackhawks, a coinage for parents who cross the line from excess zeal to unethical behavior, such as writing their kids’ admissions essays or college term papers.

And we do want to remain connected to our kids, don’t we? It’s a tough world out there, and intergenerational connection is a desirable, natural, time-honored source of support through life. It’s that overcontrolling attitude that we must all guard against! Hofer & Moore suggest that overparenting through constant contact hinders college students’ personal growth, and robs young adults of the opportunity to make decisions and learn from mistakes. They point out that excessive, controlling communication is not only detrimental to students, but it actually exacerbates parents’ anxiety as well.

The authors recommend a moderate, balanced approach that retains connection but empowers our kids to find their own way. I couldn’t agree more. Follow your instincts, use common sense, resist the temptation to fill every vacuum and answer every question, and most importantly, LISTEN to feedback from your son or daughter. After all, it’s their turn now.

Related posts: Senior Year? Learn to Paint,  College Orientation Rites, College Move-In: The Aftermath, Accepting the Empty Nest,

and Honorable Adulthood.