I reviewed Parenting Out of Control a few entries back. This morning the online Inside Higher Ed mag had an article by Patti K. See that illustrates just about everything Margaret Nelson write about regarding professional class parents. In “Confessions of a (Sometimes) Helicopter Parent,” See reveals her own helicoptering ways, the result of her own son’s going to college. She talks about he would call her for a synonym for “great,” and comments, “I almost say, ‘Are you serious?’ Instead I ask, ‘What’s the sentence?'”
She gives numerous other examples of her hovering/over-responsiveness even as she recalls thinking she shouldn’t be behaving that way. What’s remarkable is that See is senior student services coordinator at the University of Wisconsin Eau-Clair, where, she says,
At New Student Orientation, I stress that parents must help their first-year students take responsibility for themselves, advice I hoped to heed when my son, Alex, started college in August. I realize the challenge, since we’ve raised a play-date generation of children who expect mom and dad to keep coming through. Helicopter parents created this problem, but our “satellite kids” — grown up tethered to us by cell phones and e-mail, those not-so-imaginary apron strings — seem compelled to continue the pattern.
See knows better but finds it next to impossible to cut the cord when Alex calls. But the balance of responsibility gets put on the kid for “continuing the pattern.” What does that mean, really? Students themselves have fought over the years to be treated like adults once they’re in college, yet they seem to be unable to make elementary decisions without calling their parents. How did that come about?
I don’t have a ready answer to the question although Nelson suggests that, at least for the professional middle class, it’s part of seeing children as ongoing projects to be “perfected.” The cognitive dissonance of having 18-year olds in charge of their grades while the 18-year olds themselves need their parents to help them make course decisions is pretty heavy.
I’ve been out of college for a long time, long enough to know that “cut and paste” used to mean exactly that, and to have shared a phone with five other guys on my hall–a real dialing phone with a little lock on it. I think we were all proud of being on our own and able to make our own decisions. Sure we called and wrote home (I still have letters to prove it), but I’m pretty sure we didn’t have to call our parents before every major or minor decision. And I’m pretty sure our parents sent us to college with some trepidation but also with the understanding that it was now time for us to take steps on our own.
To turn the question around a bit, why would parents want to carry the burden of making decisions for their children well into young adulthood? Nelson notes that working class parents tend to see their children as “out the door” when they’re 18, i.e., they’ve completed the basics of parenting and now it’s time for their children to take off. Not cut ties completely, of course, but begin making adult decisions based on their upbringing.
Frankly, I’m pretty sure that most parents once thought this way. And to their credit, most of us turned out OK. We made mistakes and learned from them; if anything, we never called or wrote home enough for our parents’ satisfaction. As Nelson points out, though, having so many ways of communicating practically demands that we do so. Technology in that sense helped create the helicopter parent.
However, I’ve encountered a similar but institutionalized “helicoptering” as I’ve worked with some schools serving lower-income students. In trying to prepare them for college, the schools do a lot of “hand holding” by keeping after kids about deadlines, forms, college research and so on. Since these kids are usually first generation college kids, that’s appropriate up to a point, but several counselors have told me that once their students are in college, they seem helpless to do things themselves. Even before they go, they’ll come to the counselor’s office with a form, asking how to fill it out, even though the instructions are right there.
One principal told me they had to do things that way so the students would get to college. I asked him if he wanted them to come back a year later (or less) having never learned to do things themselves. His response was inconclusive but I believe it’s important when working with first-generation, low-SES kids to teach them how to be self-reliant in the college world. And this can’t start in junior year. These students need to know how to speak up for themselves, ask for what they need, and take responsibility for their futures. Unwittingly, perhaps, we sometimes recreate the professional middle class heli-world in our efforts to get our students into college. We should remember that there’s a lot more to be done than that.