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Coddled and college-bound: Helicopter parents go to school

We’ve all heard the stories. We may even know a few of them — the parents who do their children’s homework, write their college essay or hire expensive SAT tutors to give their offspring a leg up on the competition.

They’re the “helicopter parents” — those overindulgent moms and dads who hover over their children to prevent failure. Coined in 1990 by parenting and educational consultant Jim Fay and psychiatrist Foster Cline, this excessive form of parenting has escalated, giving way to more extreme monikers like “Blackhawk parent,” “Stealth fighter” or the “Snowplow” or “Lawnmower” parents — those who wipe out any possible obstacles in the path of their child’s success.

The effects this style of parenting — and its persistent interference in a child’s life — has had on students, and their ability to adjust to independence and the rigors of college life, has been in the forefront of the educational debate over the past decade.

Julie Lythcott-Haims discusses the negative effects of overparenting in her book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” The former dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University explains the impact of overprotecting and overscheduling by middle- and upper-class families: today’s young adults are struggling to make decisions, overcome setbacks, manage risk and take charge.

The book cites a 2011 study by sociologists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga that found a correlation between helicopter parenting and medication for anxiety or depression, saying the “rates...among affluent teens and young adults...correspond to the rates of depression and anxiety suffered by incarcerated juveniles.” Lythcott-Haims asserts that lower-income children are more likely to develop the fortitude needed for success, while graduates of elite schools struggle to mature.

So how have colleges responded to prevalence of overparenting?

Not long ago, parents would bring their freshman to campus, help unpack, hang a few posters and kiss them goodbye. In a few hours they’d be on their way home, leaving their newly independent student to figure the rest out on their own. Today, school administrators report that parents spend more time with their incoming child and have shown an unwillingness to separate.

Tina Sass, a mom from Clarence Center, was surprised to be approached by a representative of the Johns Hopkins University Parents Association this past September while dropping her son off for his freshman year.  A parents’ association is something most parents relate to elementary and secondary school, not college. But more and more schools are trying to find a balance in the parent/child partnership that best serves everyone.

Dr. Kevin Hearn, vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Niagara University, says that factors like mental health issues, learning disabilities or other challenges have required parents to be much more involved at the college level. Expecting parents to cut the cord and be done once their child enters college, leaving their care in the hands of strangers, is unrealistic, he says. Parents have different expectations now.

Hearn spends a good deal of time helping parents understand what role they should play. He addresses the expectations, perspectives and the changing role of parents during the school’s two-tiered orientation program.

“There was a long time that we spent complaining about helicopter parents, when the term first came out,” Hearn explained. But instead of beating them, many colleges have instead decided to join them.

“The best universities and colleges have understood that it’s the changing nature of the family environment that we are dealing with now, and have engaged and embraced the parent partnership,” said Hearn.

At the same time helicopter parents and the negative effects of overparenting are criticized, Hearn says we must also consider the tremendous things students are doing today because of it —volunteerism, research, launching micro businesses. “The world is changing because of this 17-to-21 year old demographic. Are there horror stories? Absolutely. But there are some wonderful things being done by young people.”

Hearn suggests that families today should be looking for universities that embrace the parent partnership and understand its responsibilities.

“Any university that doesn’t acknowledge that...probably is limiting their ability to be successful with that student. And also with that family,” said Hearn. “Look out for those institutions that have established programs, theories and approaches to working with families.”

In the meantime, author Lythcott-Haims urges parents to work on creating space between themselves and their child from an early age, well before the college years. They should value free play and not apologize or overexplain. Kids should be given chores and taught the satisfaction of hard work.

Students need to learn how to move forward independently without constant supervision. “They need to try and even fail, and not count on a parent to bail them out when they do. They need to hear, ‘You must figure this out for yourself’.”

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