Help, Don’t Hover: Thoughts for Parents of College Students

May 24, 2012

Help, Don’t Hover:  Thoughts for Parents of College Students

By Robert J. Massa

I had parents.  I am a parent.  Some of my best friends are parents.  So why do I get uneasy when a mother calls to arrange an admission interview for her son or when parents are the only ones to ask questions during a group information session or when a father tells me that “we” are applying to six top colleges?

And lest one think it ends with college admissions, my colleagues in academic and student affairs can relate stories of parents wanting to attend judicial hearings or challenging a professor about their daughter’s grades.  My parents had trouble even spelling “university.”

In their book, “Millenials go to College,” Neil Howe and William Strauss speak of “helicopter parents,” defining our generation of parents as “always hovering — ultra-protective, unwilling to let go and enlisting the team (physician, lawyer, psychiatrist) to assert a variety  of special needs and interest.”  When parents don’t get their way, Howe and Strauss say, “they threaten to take their business elsewhere or sue.”

When my children were growing up, my wife and i joined our neighbors in the omnipresent caravan to Little League games, volleyball matches, piano lessons and scouts.  Was this “programming” for our children wrong?  Were the values we tried to teach our kids (working toward a goal, integrity, cooperation and respect) misguided?  I think not.  But somewhere along the way, many of us mistook our needs to see our children excel with their needs to be kids.  Enter the college-prep mom and dad.

With inquisitive parents in tow, students seem more nervous than in the past during a campus visit.  After admission, the parent typically writes an appeal to the scholarship committee about why the child deserves a monetary award.  And if the student is placed on the wait list or denied admission, the parent, with his ego bruised more than his son’s, calls to put pressure on the admission officer.

Despite our best efforts to impress upon parents that their children should take charge of the admission process, the helicopter blades continue to whirl.  I have heard student affairs professionals at orientation programs advise parents to allow their children to handle their own challenges and to work with college officials to instill in them a  sense of confidence  and a willingness to take risks.  Upperclass students during freshman orientation often perform skits revealing the silliness of parent over-involvement.  Everyone laughs and “gets it.”  Then, parents leave, a terrible roommate situation or a class scheduling conflict occurs, and the phone calls to the dean begin.

A college is a special place.  Young people seeking only a credential and who want to go unnoticed and unchallenged need not apply.  College faculty and staff cannot help students to become independent thinkers and problem solvers if parents intervene every time their “emerging adults” (as the New York Times called them) call for help.

As difficult as it is for parents like me to avoid, interference of this sort undercuts the large investment we make in our children’s education. Instead, parents should listen, reflect and advise.  Let the faculty and staff do what they do best — help young people become engaged citizens and leaders in this complex world.

And so, I solemnly swear that the next time my daughter asks me to call the computer center director at her college to intervene on her behalf, I will firmly bite my tongue and politely say no.

Robert J. Massa is Vice President for Communications at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.  This piece, first written in 2005, continues to be timely today.

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