Cue the Wagner: Helicopter Parents

helicopters.jpgHelicopter parents:  are they 1) a media creation hyped by the New York Times?  Are they 2) a regional problem of the New York Times readership basin (i.e. the orange schmear on the map of North America demarcating the urban corridor from Boston to Washington D.C.)?  Or 3) are they everywhere now? 

Historiann has had only a few phone calls or e-mails from parents in the past 11 years.  Usually, they were writing or calling so that they could hear the bad news from me directly–why their daughter wasn’t in fact graduating next weekend, or why their son who swears he had a “B” average before the exam failed the course entirely.  They’ve been uniformly respectful to me although disappointed by their child’s academic failings (which seemed to be not a total surprise to them, in most cases).  It was kind of sad, and I got the impression that they were trying to hold their kids’ feet to the fire rather than to plead their cases or bully me.  While I think Baby Boomer parents have fostered close relationships with their adult children, I haven ‘t seen too much evidence that these relationships are detrimental.  So far, I might vote for option #1 or option #2, but I’d like to hear from the rest of you out there, now that we’re approaching mid-terms and the zero-hour for students to withdraw from your classes.

(Update on Funeral Blogging:  thanks for the condolences–you’re all very kind.  Still light blogging as I’ll be in the ancestral homelands for the rest of the week, and am now poaching a mysterious wi-fi connection. . .)

0 thoughts on “Cue the Wagner: Helicopter Parents

  1. I reckon this phenomenon is more common among parents of “traditional” age students, i.e. 18-21 year olds, at predominantly residential colleges and universities. The average age of our students is about 25 so Mommy and Daddy rarely enter the picture. I’ve only had a few parents intervene and like you said it’s usually because their child has really messed up and they’re trying to salvage the situation. I also get one or two mothers a semester who want their child’s registration pin number so they can “help” select courses. I politely tell them that this is confidential student information.


  2. I think that it is real — It might not come directly to us as professors. However, those who are involved in advising know that parents often make critical decisions for their children. I have also had many (too many) students who have come to my office hours saying that their parents had decided their major for them.

    Fortunately for us, the law is on our side. Whatever the culture might be, it is illegal for professors to discuss a student’s academic performance with his or her parents. The student is an adult and (no matter who pays the tuition) he or she has the right to privacy.


  3. I’ve only met two, and been warned of a third. The first was a mother whose son was on probation, and it seemed like he had more to fear from her than from any probation officer. She wanted to make sure he really was attending classes and doing his work. The second was the minister father of a homeschooled daughter who objected to the inclusion of women’s history in my class. The chair handled him. The last — of whom I’ve been warned — is the mother of a 15-year-old, homeschooled, daughter taking college courses who blamed the teacher for her daughter getting a B in an online class. The daughter will be taking courses on campus in the fall and the mother plans to sit in on all of the classes. Since her daughter is a minor, I’m wondering how the school will handle that. She’s probably an extreme example, but since her daughter is a minor, I wonder how the school will handle that situation should it arise. Otherwise, most of my students have fifteen-year olds of their own and would die of embarassment if their parents hovered!


  4. They exist. Not just the ones who are making sure their kids are doing what they’re supposed to, but the ones who attack you for not being more flexible, and the ones who give you too much TMI about their relationship with their daughters and the ones who claim you aren’t being sensitive to a disability, and the ones who claim you aren’t treating their daughter like an adult.

    Yes,I’m referring to the same parent(excuse the pronoun). I felt better after I referred to all the ways I’d been flexible, even though the student hadn’t revealed her disability to me, and that because of FERPA I was forced to engage with her daughter as an adult, and not with the parent.

    I was furious. But I think my age and appearance let people think they can bully me, and I just ain’t havin’it.


  5. For me, the helicopter parent is a little bit like an urban legend, because I’ve not dealt with them much personally, but I’ve heard a LOT of stories… however, they’ve been told to me by the actual participants, so I believe them (e.g. the student who was in an advising meeting with a colleague of mine and called his mom on his cell phone to make sure the classes he was signing up for were all right. And then the same student showed up for a meeting with mom in tow. And during that meeting he asked mom for permission to go to the bathroom!). I do think there’s a demographic to them, though I doubt it’s limited to the NYT readership basin (my experiences have been in the upper midwest and the south) – I think it’s partly what Heather Munro Prescott says, that they’re prevalent among traditional-aged students; I also think that as the tuition level goes up, the likelihood of helicopter parents goes up. I also suspect they’re more common at small (usually private) schools that sell themselves on giving students lots of personal attention – because if parents are paying for their kids to go to such schools, then they are darn well going to call you up if you they don’t think the school is living up to its end of the bargain! If you’re happy for your child to go to a huge school to begin with (where they’re in classes of 100 or something), you probably aren’t going to exhibit helicopterism. (I can’t decide if I think prestige plays into it or not. I suspect size and price are the key factors.)


  6. Oops, sorry to double-comment, but I meant to add one example of how Former College facilitated helicopterism: students were all given a FERPA waiver with their orientation materials, and they all signed it. So parents could call us up and ask us anything they liked, and we couldn’t cry FERPA on them.


  7. I had a parent try to take the blame for an act of egregious plagiarism by claiming that she had offered to type the paper because her daughter was busy, and accidentally typed 11 pages verbatim of a published article into her daughter’s 20ish page paper, including the footnotes.


  8. Further thoughts — my husband is a high school teacher, and the stories he tells me suggest that parents are so used to micromanaging teachers that they don’t seem to think twice about continuing into college. Fortunately this high school doesn’t send too many students to my second tier regional comprehensive state university.


  9. Wow–it sounds like you’ve all had encounters with helicopter parents that are much more up close and personal! (My experiences are more like GayProf–I’ve heard the stories but haven’t had much direct experience.) I think New Kid is right that it may not be regional but rather related to the type of institution (large publics versus small privates), and Heather makes a good point too about this being a phenomenon of the 18-23 demographic. Clio B.’s stories about the homeschooler crowd are an interesting new variable to watch out for–but I’m hopeful that the homeschooler parents won’t send their children to my large public university but rather will pester you all at SLACs and denominational institutions.

    Ann, your story suggests that the helicopter parents have no sense whatsoever of boundaries–I wonder if this comes out of the Dr. Laura school of motherhood? (As in, what do they do once their children grow up and move on, after having given up everything to be “my kid’s/kids’ mom”?) A close family member of mine is a pediatrician, and these women are visible a mile away when their children are small–they go to the doctor to have their diagnosis ratified, not to hear what the doctor has to say. They want to be congratulated on what a close, intuitive relationship they have with their children, and when the doctor contradicts the mother’s diagnosis, watch out! (This goes to Heather’s last point, which is that these parents aren’t deferential to any professionals–it’s not just schoolteaches and professors that get the treatment.) Amber, good for you for sticking to your guns–eventually the grey hair and wrinkles will happen, but if you’re a woman, it won’t do you as much good as they do for men’s authority…


  10. What are the ethics on my saying what I’m about to say? On the one hand, if I’m even wondering, I should probably shut up. On the other, I really don’t think I’m about to say anything terrible. So here goes.

    The internets are a small place. Especially the history blogosphere. The other day, a week ago today I’m pretty sure, I was saying to a friend that my only regret, in terms of the job market, was a position I badly wanted in my last year of graduate school. The job was at Central Connecticut State University, I explained. And I had wanted it so badly because I really, really wanted to remain in New England. And also because the people who had interviewed me had been really nice and seemed very smart. “Well, who interviewed you?” asked my friend. I couldn’t remember. But then I stopped by here. And there’s Heather Munro Prescott’s name. And I’m 99.9% sure she was the one who interviewed me: in the cattle-call room at the AHA. I didn’t get invited to campus, I’m afraid. But I still remember the interview experience very fondly. Even if I screwed up.

    All of which is a long way of saying, hello. And I hope you found a great colleague that year. You certainly dodged a bullet when you didn’t hire me. Seriously, I’m a very big pain. And finally, sorry because this is both offthread and weird. But the coincidence was too good to ignore.


  11. As one who regularly deals with students who are in academic trouble — it’s part of my administrative duties (oh no, not an administrator on the blog!!!), I get calls and visits from parents sometimes. Sometimes they come visit me with the student. Sometimes student and parent cry together. (I have a tissue box handy.) But it’s not a large number, especially not given the seriousness of some of my decisions.

    The best helicopter story I have is as a parent. A couple of years back, when my little angel was in seventh grade, he wore a T-Shirt to class with George Bush’s picture and the line “Somewhere in Texas a Village is missing its idiot.” A teacher decided to send him to the principal’s office, saying the T-Shirt was disruptive. That’s when i helicoptered in (via phone). First question: what course was this? (I figured maybe the shirt was disrupting math). Answer: humanities. So I whipped the helicopter blades around to scare the VP. I started debating the First Amendment, invoked the ACLU — and then the VP said, “You’re a troublemaker.” I wanted to say, No shit!! He wouldn’t budge. So I decided to pull the nuclear option. (Attention everybody: nuclear option works wonders in the university also.) I said, “I would like to schedule a meeting with you and the principal.” Well, the word “meeting’ brought the conversation to an end. I helicoptered out. And the kid wore his T-Shirt to class for the rest of the year, although not as often as the Che Guevara one.


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