Helicopter Parents: why the Hovering?

According to the Boston Globe, colleges are complaining about ‘helicopter parents‘, describing moms and dads whose constant hovering leads to overinvolvement in their student’s life. Such overparenting, they say, “endangers a crucial development phase in which students are seeking to become self-reliant.” Administrators say they began to notice the uptick in parents’ calls and oversight five to seven years ago. Schools have responded, attempting to impede some parents’ intervention on behalf of the student.

Point taken, but one wonders: why the hovering?

“Hypotheses range from the competitive frenzy over school success to the high cost of college education and the trend toward smaller families, in which children make decisions with their parents.” Others blame e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, and other easy forms of communication. Still others think it has been prompted in part by family dynamics, primarily divorce.

But the WSJ CareerJournal.com responds with “In Defense of Hovering: Parents Explain Their Meddling at College.

Sue Kirkpatrick intended to let her daughter manage her own life at college, but “bureaucratic bungling” (the school forgot her scholarships incalculating tuition ) threatened to cost the family $12,000. “Colleges,” Ms. Kirkpatrick says, “don’t always listen to their students.”

“Byzantine eligibility requirements” complicate tuition, scholarships, and loans. And soaring tuition makes stays beyond four years unaffordable. According to this Slate item, the only families paying full sticker price at elite universities come from wealthier families. “Middle-income families paid a discounted tuition of $10,794 in 1988 (in year 2000 constant dollars); the same families in 2001 paid $11,024, an increase of just 2 percent in 13 years. Low-income families actually experienced a reduction in tuition, from a 1988 net of $7,667 to $5,907 in 2000.” While those among with upper incomes saw a big increase in tuition, “even their tuition cost represented about the same share of family income in 2001 as in 1988”. The purpose of this policy is redistributionist: wealthier students subsidize needier classmates by paying full price.

Interesting, but as the rest of us have seen considerable tuition inflation, it’s not surprising that parents hover over such an outlay. “During any 17-year period from 1958 to 2001, the average annual tuition inflation rate was between 6% and 9%, ranging from 1.2 times general inflation to 2.1 times general inflation. On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years.” With this kind of expense, perhaps such hovering is better termed ‘intense investor scrutiny’.

Others look back on their college years and see mediocrity, something they don’t want for their children.

Still others see bureaucracies that flummox mere students. When a Tennessee systems programmer’s daughter broke her leg as an undergrad, she was unable to get a handicapped-parking pass at the $20,000-a-year university. Her parents finally called campus officials, cited federal disabilities law, and got the pass. The likely outcome of the daughter’s foray into the maw of College Administration would have been (and was) zip. Nada. So which is the “life lesson” to be valued: burned by the college admin desk, or learning by the actions of a mentor? And at what point is the student harmed by too much watching?

A change of majors can prove financially disastrous, as one parent discovered. A Virginia man said his undergrad son got off-track in course planning when his academic adviser abandoned him after changing majors. While the private Virginia university promoted its individual attention, their neglect will cost this wealth-management adviser “$150,000 in after-tax cost.”

My gripes?

1. I don’t trust the universities to act in my daughter’s best interest. As David Horowitz has demonstrated in his work with the organization FIRE , students often need their individual rights defended at American universities. The list of grievances is long, but suffice it to say that higher education often demonstrates antipathy towards the classical liberal values of liberty, legal equality, and dignity.

For example, my daughter’s summer reading assignment before freshman year was the execrable Nickled and Dimed (no link, no way), that socialist travelogue of slumming with the “common man” by activist author Barbara Ehrenreich. At the first week’s seminar, she told me that opinions contrary to the redistributionist conclusion were, well, unwelcome.

2. A new teacher at my daughter’s school flunked over half the class, and gave D’s to one-fourth, in an introductory economics class. During the tests and quizzes, the grad student teaching assistants confessed to her that they themselves could not understand the object of some test questions, nor did they comprehend the answers. After loud and numerous parent complaints, most grades were “shifted” up two levels. Ludicrous.

Frankly, I don’t trust their judgement. My father did, and they deserved his faith in them. I don’t feel they warrant such deference any longer. I often wonder whether I am paying close enough attention.

13 thoughts on “Helicopter Parents: why the Hovering?”

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  2. There’s a big difference between kid’s running into a bureaucratic brick wall and asking for their parent’s help and having the parents anticipate and resolve problems without the kid learning how to identify and solve problems on their own.

    When one of my daughters was having trouble with the student health service, I finally sent a sharp e-mail to the college president that had the desired efect. But she had to jump through the first hoops herself.

    I spoke to a professor about this at a party last week and the kinds of calls they get are to argue about grades, to get pre-requisites relaxed and to discuss course selection for coming quarters. And these are not after the student has been in to see the prof, this is out of the blue. That’s just a bit much.

    And I know folks whose children call them at least daily between classes from cell phones. It all smells like control freak boomers who don’t want to loose control of their precious cargo even though they’ve taken down the “Baby on Board” sign.

    As for jerk profesors, I had my share. 60% of my first semester intro calculus class got an F or D. And this was in spite of the jocks leaving en masse when the prof announced the curve on the first day. They’re going to have jerk bosses at some time in the future, they should find out how to work with them sooner rather than later.

  3. Re: “But she had to jump through the first hoops herself.”

    I agree with your approach; we’ve taken the same tack. I have friends that are in academia who cite the same overbearing parents you describe. They were a pain in grade school and high school, and now they’re a pain at the alma mater.

    Yet many of these selfsame universities abandoned in loco parentis and buckled under to student takeovers at college campuses in the late sixties and seventies. These former students, now parents, have simply shifted their revolutionary ways from taking over the dean’s office by force to taking it over by e-mail.

    It’ll be very difficult to undo that legacy.

  4. I don’t know what is going on this year but for the first time, the parents greatly outnumbered the freshmen at the department’s orientation session. Got to talk with a lot of highly motivated kids, but in some cases, the parents were so eager that the actual students couldn’t get a word in.

    I felt sorry for one girl as her mom just kept blabbing on non-stop in obvious indifference to the issues her daughter wanted to bring up.

    Is this a blip or a trend? But this year is very different from what I saw just 2 or 3 years ago.

  5. I favor the increased ease of communication as a reason. In my case, when I got a cellphone my communication with my parents increased dramatically to say the least.

  6. Well, most parents have always seemed to harbor a d e s i r e to get their offspring to grow up as slowly as possible. Now that society and the law have firmly come down on the sid e o f no one ever even coming close to being ready to grow up until age 18 (after many years of gradual change in that direction), some parents are “pushing the envelope” seeing how much more childhood they can push onto their offspring. Not letting them face any real challenge alone in college, even down to attending orientation by themselves or adapting to scholastic standards and procedures, is a good strategy to keep them helpless and childlike a few more years. As a bonus, the more professors they can browbeat into grading easily, the less a college d e g r e e will be a sign of real achivement, and the more likely their child will need to go to graduate school to get the kind of job a college d e g r e e gets him now, leaving their precious child d e p e n d e n t on mommy and daddy even longer.

  7. 2 reasons.

    1. Tuition is now so high that we can’t let the process go off track. An extra year because of bad **** advice or poor course selection can be a sever financial hardship.

    2. When I went to college in a previous millennium, the faculty was composed of members of the greatest generation and refugees from Europe. The former were men of great character, the later were men of great learning. Now the faculties are composed of members of the worst generation (the odious baby boomers) who have bad character and no learning.

    **** an adjective relating to universities, which was rejected by the spam filter.

    The spam filter also rejeced the comination of the past tense of make and the preposition that is the opposit of down.

  8. maybe it’s the fact that we were the generation that had to raise our kids with a fingerprinting pad because of the threat of child abductions; maybe it’s because we were urged to check the s-x offenders web site to know who was in our neighborhoods; maybe because we had to track the web sites our kids visited because it was so much easier for them to be preyed upon in their living rooms; maybe it’s because we bought the lie that I am entitles to a perfect life – and if it isn’t, i’ll sue someone… maybe it’s because we know our own lack of character and assume no one else has any either–or maybe it’s Bush’s fault, like everything else!

  9. Our gifted young son, Jack, is a college student with Asperger Syndrome and other developmental disorders. While he can adeptly debate politics, religion, and literature in French, Italian, Spanish, English and (soon) Arabic, he gets physically LOST on campus and organizationally lost in a calendar. He cannot and will never be able to drive. There is NO public transportation to get him to his community college due to “township boundries”. As soon as Universities adapt the layout of the campus, offer “outreach transportation” and faculty members begin to realize that “disabilities” include more than wheelchairs, I will continue to accompany my son to his college night classes so that he can someday become INDEPENDENT. Until the day when our community ALLOWS us to help our son to separate from us, I will proudly yet reluctantly wear my “helicopter parent” uniform. I would LOVE to ground my helicopter and to retire from the force…yet
    Call me “Captain” of the helicopter squadron!

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