Unsound methods

Is it possible that “helicopter parents” are just responding to incredibly needy and dependent children?  (Is it possible that some children shouldn’t be sent away to college, but continue to live at home while they study?)

Mobile phones and the erasure of long-distance charges has enabled this kind of codependence, or whatever you want to call it.  I also completely understand the urge to answer the phone when a child is calling.  When I was in college, it never dawned on me to call my parents with every question or concern that popped into my head, and not just because it cost more money than it does now.  I was happy to be away from home and my parents–even if it meant screwing up or not taking care of myself as I probably should have. 

I’ve heard that children can get helicopter parents off their backs if the child agrees to check in by phone once or twice a week on a regular schedule.  Maybe some children need to be told to call only once a week on a schedule, unless it’s a real emergency.

0 thoughts on “Wow.

  1. Just a few comments here–

    -I’ve experience a couple of serious cases of helicoptering at my college, but it’s hardly legion. We’re a place that would be ripe for it, with plenty of alum parents invested in the place. I’d like to know more than anecdotes about this phenomenon.

    -A colleague and dear friend married a man from Cuba. His parents moved in with them immediately. They all wondered why children’s “independence” was so highly prized here in the U.S. And wondered, too, why financial contributions from parents to children didn’t seem to count as “dependence” whereas close emotional connections did.

    -In the special ed. parents’ crowd where I hang out, we work to help our kids (most of them college-bound) be more independent. We know that more diagnoses (of ADHD, Autism etc) must be the result of closer attention/ labeling and also environmental factors. Surely there is a larger population of LD kids in college now than at any other time. In my 20 yr old now successful college about-to-be-sophomore and 4.0 student, I’ve seen huge progress, but it required a lot of parental support. None of which would have been apparent to faculty, but under any definition would have qualified as helicoptering.


  2. My two cents:
    My dad was the first person in his family to go to college (my grandma dropped out of the third grade.) He went to the workstudy school downstate, maybe 150 miles away. And he had a special tube with which he would mail his dirty shirts, home, where my grandma would launder and press them and then mail them back. For reals!!

    I had my heart set on going to college abroad; I got in, was all ready to go, and balked. So I went to the fancy SLAC in the next state over. I balked because I was terrified of being so far from my family. And not because we talked everyday. Patti See’s involvement makes my parents’ look seriously neglectful! But because I knew I’d need rescue at some point and if I went abroad I wouldn’t be able to at least come home for Thanksgiving. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, when you’re 18.

    And word on the student loan thing. If I taught at an expensive school–instead of the open admissions urban place where I do–I’d be awash in helicopter moms. But I just teach kids who work 40 hours a week AND go to school. Are they flakey? Yes. But they never sic mom on me.


  3. kw, I am looking at something like that further down the road with autistic youngest. I suspect that I will, perforce, need to be much more involved with her educational choices and activities, whatever she decides to pursue, simply because I know she doesn’t yet have the awareness and focus to pursue this at this age the way that eldest does!


  4. Not much to add here but surely we’re not including the necessary involvement of parents with special needs children in this conversation. I went to college with a guy who had Asperger’s and, although we didn’t see his mother much, I could tell that she was really involved behind the scenes. But without that, he might not have been able to go to college as far away as he did, be part of the traveling music group we were in, and go to graduate school for a PhD.

    As I see “helicopter parenting”, we’re talking about children who don’t need the help they’re getting, which is why I’m less concerned about frequent phone calls (although I don’t understand it) and more concerned with the stories of mothers driving 200 miles to do laundry in someone’s dorm and intense knowledge of someone’s class schedule, etc, etc.


  5. I lived at home for my college studies, but of course you can’t move too far from home and stay within Ireland. It was a bus ride to the next town. Just under an hour’s trip.

    And I discussed my studies with my mother. Not because she could help me (she certainly didn’t know much chemistry), but because it was interesting, and she’s interested in science and academically minded even though she only did her O-Levels in England (she’s been to university since, and qualified as an English/ISL interpreter). I also talked to her about my work because that helped to fix it in my own head. And when cool things about symmetry, or whatever, were explained to me in class, I’d go home and explain it to my mother. And she would at least pretend to be interested.

    In school, I did the same thing with English poetry. I remember standing in the kitchen reading Keats at her.

    And when she was in college I read a lot of her textbooks and talked to her about them, because I found both the sociology and the linguistics fascinating.



  6. @rustonite: Your dad is also being inappropriate. Your mother is much more his responsibility than hers. He married her for better, for worse, in sickness, etc. He chose her. You have no choice in your parents. Even though you are in your twenties, they are the adults, the parents; you are the child. Neither of them is doing their job in letting you go, and that is your dad’s job as much as your mom’s. You might want to consider cutting ties (or limiting contact) with both of them, so you can live your own life and they can sort out their issues. I know this is not easy. But I also know whereof I speak: for 5-6 years, no one in my family had my phone number, because of a similar situation. Eventually we got to a better place. Sir John also estranged himself, for somewhat different reasons: even though close family ties are seen as both normal and desirable, I’m trying to say that you do have company here. You are reponsible for you, and your mother is responsible for herself, and she can’t work out her issues as long as she’s leaning on you. I’ll quote Adrienne Rich: “Save yourself; others you cannot save.” Good luck, whatever you do; my heart goes out to you.

    Sorry for the hijack, Historiann, but I really needed to say that to rustonite.


  7. I agree with everyone who has noted that helicopter parenting is a new phenomenon, facilitated by technology.
    However, the idea that college students are “adults” is also a pretty recent notion. When the age of majority was 21 for everything, colleges were assumed to be in loco parentis far more than they are now (anyone know any dorms these days that enforce curfews? they used to!).
    The ideas behind FERPA, that college students of age 19 are adults who have a right to privacy from their parents is really a very recent one.
    And I notice it is one that colleges have yet to master in their attitudes, on the one hand some are still stuck in the extended-boarding-school mentality (everything is provided for the students), while giving their students far more freedom than previous generations had in the same situation.


  8. Katrina–I don’t think the adulthood thing is all that recent, but I agree that it’s a phenomenon of the last 40 years. It was in the 1960s that most colleges and unis dropped the parietal rules for dorm life (the in loco parentis stuff), and the “youth culture,” the draft, and the lowering of the voting age to 18 in the U.S. meant that people were having these conversations at about the same time and concluding that 18 = adulthood in a variety of venues.

    What I find ironic–or not???–is that the generation (boomers) who fought parietal rules and for more privileges for younger people (and drugged it up, big time) are the Helicopter Parents who are drug testing their kids, permitting locker searches at school, etc.–creating one of the most surveiled generations. (And since I’m a Gen Xer, I can sit back with cool detachment and judge them all!)

    (In case you can’t tell, that was sarcasm.)

    thefrogprincess is right that I never meant this discussion to include disabled students–we’re talking here about otherwise healthy and/or neurotypical students. But, kw makes an interesting point, which is that there are more and more students with disabilities in universities and colleges these days, and that students who may have a “hidden” disability might have parents who are perceived as Helicopter Parents. I would also add that I’ve had a number of students who didn’t want to document their learning disabilities because they didn’t want to be “marked,” although it would have helped them with their schoolwork.

    This has been really interesting–I’ve got an idea next week for a follow-up post, so stay tuned.


  9. Not to say that parents know best, which is almost never the case, alas, but that it’s awfully hard to judge when and how a student we don’t really know is “capable.” I’m sure I’d roll my eyes at a parent who drove 200 miles to do their kid’s laundry, but I also know that my one undergrad. advisee whose mom seemed to show up on campus a lot had just lost her father a few weeks before the term started and she and her mom were obviously struggling both with that grief and also with how she could stay on track academically. Just saying that a phenomenon we might be inclined to assess generally may have distinctive individual explanations even beyond the LD issues I raised earlier.


  10. I want to quickly echo Tom’s early comment about the exceptionality of most of the readers of this blog, and to share a different perspective on a number of the interactions described in the IHE piece. I’m 26 now and moved out of my father’s house just shy of ten years ago, immediately after graduating high school. I worked my way through college, first a CC and then a state school, both chosen for affordability- no dorms, just my own small apartment. Academics were my business and I handled anything that came up myself. I was, and am, about as independent as they come, but you know what? I called my dad frequently, not for “every question or concern that popped into my head”, but for advice on major purchasing decisions or those with legal implications, how to do x, how to fix y (though lord help me if I ever considered washing a chicken with Palmolive)– because there *is* a learning curve in establishing an adult life, and there’s an advisory role there for parents during that transition that’s entirely separate from playing living thesaurus. While I don’t think that we’re going to extremes in any of the comments here, there is middle ground that needs to be factored in (and I’m not even sure my experience is it).


  11. I think that what TRiG’s discussing is totally not helicoptering. Talking passionately with your family about what you are learning is wonderful. Keats at the kitchen sink! I mean, really, how great is that?

    It’s the parents who know their child’s schedule down to the last minute that scare me.


  12. yeah, and helping them with their homework. That is so embarrassing for all concerned!

    I think many people 18-22 actually aren’t capable at all, because their parents have been coddling them for so long, rather than preparing them to take care of themselves once outside the home. One would hope college would at least be a venue to “cut the cord”. Do kids these days not do household chores anymore either? I really don’t see “closeness” being an excuse for not knowing how to do your laundry or load the dishwasher, or do your own homework.

    You should know how to do all that stuff at (at least!!) 14/15 yo, let alone college age. My older sister has an 18 and a 16 year old, and they’re functionally helpless. Suffice to say, I don’t understand this at all. One of her problems is that she always said she didn’t want to be a “nag”, so never told them to do anything, just would do it herself. That included their homework. I suppose the question about how she expected them to learn anything ever if they didn’t do it themselves was a moot point. Her avoidance of hearing them complain seemed to take precedence over anything else.

    She’s an extreme case, but I wonder if many of these parents aren’t similar in not wanting to be the “bad guy”. Then perhaps the anxious helicoptering ensues when they realize they’ve sent their child out with absolutely no life skills?

    don’t know, but we are all worried about the niece and nephew in my family.


  13. This is funny b/c my parents’ view was that my homework took priority and so I did very little housework growing up. (There was also something about my mother’s mother forcing her to do all the housework and so my mother didn’t want to repeat that.) BUT even if I didn’t do much housework, I knew how to do everything: wash dishes (and we didn’t have a dishwasher), wash and iron clothes, mop, some basic cooking, etc. And the clear idea was that when I left the house for college, I would know how to do all the basics and I think that’s incredibly valuable.

    (A brief anecdote: a few years back, I spent a few days in London and stayed at the apartment of a college friend, who had spent a few years working in finance in New York and then had moved to London. After eating some food, I went to wash the dishes and filled up the sink with dishwater. My friend then came over and asked me how I had done that; he had probably washed individual pieces under running water, I’m assuming, but had never filled up a sink with warm, soapy water. We were 25.)


  14. I think there are a lot of parents (mothers perhaps especially) who want to continue to feel needed by their children.

    I have little doubt that this is the case for my sister-in-law, and there it has nothing to do with decreased family size.

    As for changes over time, I have seen the shift from “in loco parentis” (which ended just before I started college) to “no parents” to helicopters in my lifetime and I find it bizarre … except that I can understand why my brother would want a bit more structure in his kids’ college experience than he had. It might not be a coincidence that boomers had extreme freedom in college in the 70s and then watch their kids like mother hawks.

    That said, there were kids back in my day who had that need. Some ran up their phone bill and some couldn’t handle it and dropped out (but might have continued school at home). They might survive today. But the fine-grained supervision today (24/7 cell contact) is overkill even if I do wonder how I ever managed to go grocery shopping in pre-cell days!

    Of course, some of that detail directed toward the parents might also be a way of creating the illusion that the parents know everything that is going on…..


  15. Oh, I have to add one detail for Katrina. I do know there are dorms (or subsets of dorms) that enforce curfews on visitors of the opposite sex, sort of in parallel to ones that are fully co-ed. Alcohol control is much stricter now than it was when I went to college (even with the drinking age at 21). But the days when students at a state university were required to have a wastebasket in the doorway if a girl was in the room (thus creating a market for crushed wastebaskets that allowed the door to close) and keep at least three feet on the floor at all times – those ended a couple years before I got to college.


  16. One would hope college would at least be a venue to “cut the cord”. Do kids these days not do household chores anymore either?

    For perspective, when my father was in university (late 50s/early 60s @ large midwestern institution), students routinely mailed their laundry home. The post office even had special boxes for this purpose. In loco parentis rules also forbade students from having kitchens. A lot of that changed after Vietnam.


  17. What I find creepy is my friend who scours the Internet to look at bus maps in the faraway city where her son, who is over 21 lives, so as to exhort him to commute in the way she considers best.

    In the IHE article, I thought it was a little weird that the mother was looking things up on the son’s university website and sending him the links. I think making the suggestions she did was fine, I just wouldn’t have done the actual footwork. Maybe just sending the links was faster than explaining that they would be there if he looked, though. My current department chair definitely assumes none of us are familiar with the university website, and always gives instructions; my bet is that it’s because it’s faster to head off all questions at the beginning; the mom is also an administrator and may have gotten into that mode.

    But as regards the other phoning and so on, I think a lot of it is just because space-time have been changed since long distance phone calls became free. I remember people in college whose mothers phoned them long distance and every morning, and it was apron strings. Others sometimes extravagantly phoned their mothers for advice on cooking, and it was just love. In my family, we all had interrelated majors and we’d phone each other to ask quick academic questions just because there was no Internet, the library and the professors’ offices were a trek away, and asking a friend could mean creating a social distraction.


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  20. In response to Rustonite, whose situation is very similar to what I’ve experienced, I always wonder if the pressures to be “a perfect mother” are part of what compels my own mother to not acknowledge when her behavior is clearly out of line. What she sees as normal and just-doing-my-job-as-mom seems excessive to many other people. But a perfect mother won’t just do what’s good enough for other people, no? Perfect parents have to go above and beyond.

    I don’t know if the increasing emphasis on perfect parents is part of the helicopter parent phenomenon, but I could see it being connected.


  21. I was first-gen student from a dirt-poor rural background; I went to college 400 miles way to Large Urban Univ. I researched school myself, applied myself, got 2 jobs, got loans (for federal loans and Pell grants no parental signatures necessary), housing, budgeted, registered, etc. I was completely on my own and I committed to sending money home to help out; not saying I did it all perfectly (I was homeless while attending classes for awhile). I simply feel no connection to ‘helicopter’ kids or parenting. Of course my own race, class, gender, sexuality always inform my understanding of topics such as these.


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