Hovering Parents in the Workplace

A couple of months ago, I wrote about kids whose self-esteem has been artificially raised to such extreme levels that they cannot stand criticism or disappointment…and who are now entering the workplace. In many cases, it seems that the parents of such kids are confronting the kids’ employers when their offspring get fail to get expected promotions, receive performance appraisals that aren’t all roses, etc.

More on this theme in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

Sue Shellenbarger writes about parents who seek to get deeply involved in the hiring process. One father showed up with his daughter, who was being interviewed for a job with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The mother of another recruit at Enterprise joined a phone call and began grilling the recruiter about the benefits package. At other companies, parents are calling hiring managers to protest the offered pay packages and try to renegotiate. At GE, an offer was made to a recruit last fall, and the recruit’s mother called the next day trying to negotiate an increase in pay. “It’s unbelievable to me that a parent of a 22-year-old is calling on their behalf,” say Allison Keaton, director of college relations for St Paul Travelers. She calls this generation “the kamizake parents–the ones that already mowed down the guidance and admissions offices and are now moving into the workplace.”

And at Boeing, one candidate brought his mother right into the interview.

I wonder about these parents…what do most of them do for a living? If they have ever managed people, surely they must realize that interference like that described above would not be appreciated by their kids’ prospective bosses. Even if they have never managed people, one would think that ordinary common sense and empathy would lead them to the same conclusion.

Imagine recruiting someone for a position in which he is eventually going to be negotiating with customers and/or suppliers. Now imagine that he brings his mother or father in to help him negotiate his own pay package. Is this going to increase your confidence in his ability to represent your company properly? Hardly.

It’s natural for parents to want to help their kids in their careers, and there are plenty of entirely legitimate ways to do that…give advice. Help with introductions. Provide perspective and realism when things go wrong.

But the levels of involvement described in the WSJ article go way beyond such traditional forms of support, and can only serve to undercut the development of confidence and independence. A 5% higher starting salary isn’t worth it if the price is the failure to develop one’s own negotiating powers. The same parents who focused on credentials rather than knowledge and metaskills in the education process are also failing to comprehend the importance of metaskill development in the workplace.

Shellenbarger uses the common phrase “helicopter parents” (referring to the hovering) for the headline of her story. But helicopters must periodically leave their hovering position and go somewhere to refuel. The parents described in this article are more like permanently-installed cranes than they are like helicopters.

Americans have always liked to think of themselves as independent and self-reliant. Given the behavior described in these articles, is that view out of date?

(See also: Micromanaging the Kids)

20 thoughts on “Hovering Parents in the Workplace”

  1. Not a new problem. I began work for AT&T in 1961. Abut a year later we hired a high school grad. He brought a note from his mother to his supervisor asking that the young man be excused from attending company training out of town. Reason? She did not want her son to fly as it “scared her”

    J Johns

  2. I can attest that the phrase “helicopter parents” is in wide use. My daughter worked at an after-school facility and they used the term. She figures about 20%-25% of the parents fit the qualification. These are parents that not only hover but go hysterical if their kids skin their knees on the playground. These parents were all upper income, well-educated and came from diverse cultural backgrounds.

    Very strange behavior. I grew up on a farm/raunch were we got kicked out of the house into the wild with nothing more than an order to take the dog and watch out for rattlesnakes. I can’t relate to such prissy parenting at all.

  3. I’ve known plenty of kids (most now ‘adults,’ though the term must be used loosely) who always operated ‘with parents attached.’ Interestingly, I’ve observed that both parents and offspring that fit this description are overwhelmingly Left-leaning in their politcal beleifs. There is a certain obvious symmetry between progressive belief systems and overprotective behaviors. However, I don’t know if this correlation is generalizable- I’ve lived my life largely in Left-Coast (Seattle and San Diego) areas- this observation may be a localized phenomena.

  4. Cornflake and I are both near enough in age to these “Millenials” to know just how bad they can be. However, I think we’re just old enough to have missed the worst of them. It’s one thing to have neurotically overprotective parents (believe me I know), but this behavior is just mind-boggling.

    It seems worst with parents who spent their youth in the 70’s as pot-smoking flower-children and then morphed into the status seeking yuppies of the 80’s. The problem is that these parents see their kids as not just children to be raised in a loving environment, but as status symbols, paraded around in the latest fashions as a testament to the parent’s greatness. I call this the “Baby Gap” syndrome.

    In classic narcissistic style, perfection in the child is not just expected, but taken for granted. Any criticism of the child not only devastates the child’s fragile self-esteem, but causes apoplectic reactions from parents suffering injured pride.

    I just don’t understand how the kids can put up with it. Between ages 17-22 I could barely stand to be around my parents for more than 30 minutes. I mean, it was nice to have mom do my laundry and all, but come on…

  5. Some time ago there was a set of posts here that talked about how we don’t expect our children to become “adults” until well into their thirties.
    If I remember correctly, the point of that post was in discussing how this has had an effect on low educational standards in high schools (as well as certain sexual behaviors) but I think the underlying explanation is similar to what’s being observed in this article.

    It’s clear to me now that any parent who really wants to give their kids a helping hand will take deliberate steps to train them and teach them appropriate disciplines while they are young with the goal of graduating an 18 year-old adult capable of interacting with the rest of the adult world.

    Waiting for and allowing this maturing to take place at college or during the first few years of his/her career is not doing the child any favors.

  6. One of the programs I teach at the museum is a simulated space mission. We have groups of about 30 kids, 15 in a mock spacecraft and 15 in a mock mission control area. The whole point of the exercise is to develop teamwork and communication, and a big part of that is making the kids do the work themselves, not having me or their teacher or their parents do it for them.

    In our introduction, we tell the group that the kids have to work together, and that the adults are “space tourists” who are on vacation and can’t help. Sometimes we still get that one stupid parent who just can’t step back from his kid and let his kid learn. We get that one parent who thinks he needs to do his kid’s job or else it won’t get done, and I sometimes have to remind them several times that they are on vacation and that the kid is a professional astronaut who can handle his responsibility. (I can make sure the right jobs get done *without* doing them for the kids, just by giving the right nudges. It is a simulation after all!)

    I’ve found that, for a lot of these parents, they just can’t stand to see their kid fail. They’ve got that hippie leftist “everyone should succeed at everything, except those evil oppressive capitalists, f*** them” mentality. Their worldview is flawed, because they don’t understand this one key thing: failure is necessary for growth. You don’t get to be better at anything without doing it and seeing your flaws. But leftists often hold this strange view that everyone is “OK” just as they are — not the sane view that all people are valuable humans whether they succeed or fail, but the insane view that people shouldn’t improve because they’re already “good enough”. They hold this view that people should just be exactly who they are and never change or grow, but should just magically succeed at whatever they do. They hold the view that failure is bad, and that anyone who fails does so because he’s been oppressed — a view that simply doesn’t allow one to be a functional human being.

  7. Good feedback above, as usual. I can add only …

    “Imagine recruiting someone for a position in which he is eventually going to be negotiating with customers and/or suppliers.”

    That’s every job, everywhere; see the Deming process workbench (click in upper right to download; 287 kB *.pdf).

    I think there’s also a tie-in here to Barone’s Hard America/Soft America. Most of us, myself certainly included, lived in Soft America until age 18; by charming coincidence, my 18th birthday was the first day of class at the U of C. Hard America, indeed. Shellenberger’s article is about what happens when screwed-up Boomer parents try to extend Soft America for their precious offspring. It’s not the only such episode of insanity currently underway.

  8. LotharBot…I’m curious: were you able to identify the professions of the meddlesome parents? It would be intriguing to know what sort of background would be consistent with this kind of behavior…

  9. I guess what worries me more than the existence of such parents is the fact that they don’t just take it as common knowledge that calling their kids’ bosses on their behalf is a surefire recipe for getting their kids fired.

    Seriously. Is the job market that awesome that overgrown babies whose mommies and daddies have to fight their battles are worth keeping on the payroll? Or are parents just that clueless? Or do the bosses ignore the parents and figure their “kids” can’t stop them from doing stupid things any more than he can?

    Or have bosses caught the pervasive attitude that 20-something really are or (perhaps worse) should be overgrown children and figure that having their parents speak for them is perfectly acceptable and normal?

  10. Those parents had better get used to supporting their darlings. I would never hire someone so incapable of independent thought and action.

    How much “helping” is actually “controlling”? Not just in this context, but in the “helping professions” in general? I think that’s the link to politics; it’s soft tyranny.

  11. David, no clue about professions. I don’t have that much time to talk to them; I’m too busy paying attention to my own job to watch the parents that closely. I just get them away from the kids and then go back to giving the kids appropriate challenges.

  12. Museum classes, kids have to be signed up for? How expensive? My experience with such groups is that the parents are overwhelmingly academic, but that may be just the nature of our one-industry town. (All three of my kids took many local natural history museum classes, even though we are not a family all that interested in science, camping, etc.)

  13. God forbid if my Mom ever heard me say this, but in many ways this description fits her, BUT only in terms of my youngest brother, whom she helps organize his school scheadule (including homework) and helps write papers. Did I mention he’s 22 and in college (and still not doing well).

    My point is that perhaps some of these parents aren’t doing this with all their kids. I cannot explain her behavior. She was supportive of me when I was that age, but in the encouraging “what are YOU going to do to solve YOUR problem” way.

    Ultimately, the worst of it falls upon the spoiled child (er..man), whose maturity has been forestalled. Yet, I sense in my Mom a sense of quite concern at why her youngest hasn’t gotten his s— together. I wish that she would see that the answer is that he has had no incentive to.

    PS – What’s with the kids nowadays that have to talk to their parents everyday, sometimes twice a day. I think mine would stop answering the phone if I did that (or start to worry about me).

  14. Well, all I can say is that reading this post & then Rummel’s about the “catalyst” for the French riots makes me hope we keep our sanity that lets us fire people whose parents want to negotiate their performance reviews. And if the French are suffering from the same generational pattern (?), then these riots are understandable (no one has ever crossed these kids? And they are scared to death someone will?). And if the result is the kind of job security the rioters want with the kind of helicopter parents this describes, then France is toast. And we may be turning a little brown.

  15. Elam,

    I take your points about overinvolved parents and overdependent children, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with talking to your parents every day. (I mean saying hi, not calling to get mom’s instructions for dealing with your boss.) If you and your parents get along, why not? You won’t always be able to.

  16. Ginny,

    the classes we teach throughout the school year are usually with classes from local schools. It costs $400 for a class to do a simulated space mission. See onsite programs and outreach programs for more info and a list of other programs.

    The parents tend to cover pretty much the whole spectrum. I’ve had everyone from engineers with top-secret clearances at Boeing to housewives. The meddling ones aren’t always the ones you’d expect, either. Sometimes the obviously brilliant engineers are the worst at following directions and letting their kids do their jobs, and sometimes they’re the best.

  17. I agree with Jonathan. In the “old days,” long distance was terribly expensive and cumbersome. After a couple of times when my parents quite obviously did not find my letters interesting (or perhaps too interesting), I stopped writing any. When I was in Europe, they had no idea what country I was in.

    I am regularly thankful that e-mails & phone calls – even from Europe – are generally free or at least inexpensive. I’m also thankful that my children are better children than I was (though I suspect we are warmer parents).

    Hovering may be in the eye of the beholder and perhaps we do that, too. But we share interests and take pride in them and, most of all, just find them awfully interesting. That’s a good thing.

  18. What I have noticed, and I do not know if anyone else has- is that many baby boomers had kids in the 60s and 70s that they more or less abandoned once they got inconvenient to have around, (IE, having kids interfered with their “lifestyle”) and had a second crop of kids in ther 80s or 90s which they were very doting towards and pretty much spoiled them rotten.

    I call these their “keeper kids”; the parents now being old enough to be past the partying every weekend stage and more settled in their habits, they want to have a child they can use to prove they were good parents all along, and those older kids were just “born bad”…So their earlier failure with them was not their fault for being self indulgent, self centered and selfish parents but rather the kid’s fault for not being a good kid.

    Yes, I went through this myself- being the oldest child in my family and always was treated like a dog, while my siblings many years younger could do no wrong and were given every indulgence.
    I am posting anonymously for personal reasons, but you may call me “Nomad” if you wish to ask me any questions.

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