Once Upon a Helicopter

Occasionally in my life as an educator, I have the opportunity to meet with parents. Some are supportive, some are worried, some are curious. This is not a new phenomenon in education, as research and actual academic positions have materialized at institutions of all levels, everyone asking the same question: how do we deal with parents?

There is a fine line

between hover and smother.

In high school, when you’re a minor, your parents legally and literally have control of your records. Thanks to FERPA (Family Education Rights & Privacy Act) – once students turn 18, their records are their own. Granted, some students fly the coop before 18, but in the eyes of the law, that’s the age of majority.

In college, you’ve supposedly crossed the threshold to adulthood. Not only because the law says so, but because you’re out of the nest (in most cases). Yet even in a student’s early 20’s, you can still find a parent waiting in the wings, not just to cheer them on, but to intervene.

I have always been extremely close to my parents. As an only child, I had all the glory and all the blame – “the dog did it” really doesn’t hold any salt. I made some mistakes, and some great strides, and there were my parents all along: coaching me, encouraging me, raising an eyebrow if I was being an idiot (you know that look). But I was brought up to be independent, and to solve my own problems. If a teacher gave me a bad grade, the question was – what could I, the student, do about it? I could gripe to my parents, and ask for advice, but would not have dreamed of getting them involved. Bear in mind, this is not one-sided. I knew it wasn’t their place to get involved, and THEY knew it wasn’t their place to get involved, as well.

In a recent issue of the Chronicle Review, Terry Castle quoted Craig Lambert’s piece in Harvard Alumni magazine entitled: “Nonstop: Today’s Superhero Undergraduates Do ‘3000 Things at 150 Percent.’

“Parental engagement even in the lives of college aged children has expanded in ways that would have seemed bizarre in the recent past. (Some colleges have actually created a “dean of parents” position – whether identified as such or not – to deal with them.) The “helicopter parents” who hover over nearly every choice or action of their offspring have given way to “snow plow parents” who determinedly clear a path for their child and shove aside any obstacle they perceive in the way.”

Castle focuses on understanding why her Stanford kids are talking or texting with their parents several times a day, and Lambert acknowledges we might have a much bigger problem on our hands.

For me, it comes down to five points:

  • Trust – At some point, you have to trust your student to do the work. If they miss the deadline? Their fault.
  • Dependence – It’s a beautiful thing when a parent can provide for a child, but don’t forget to bring some work ethic in on the silver platter. How else will they learn?
  • Failure – Confucius is credited with the quote, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Learning from mistakes is a necessity, not a luxury.
  • Embarrassment – There is something to be said about the elephant in the room.
  • Expectations – No one is perfect. Collaboration is key in managing expectations. Parents often pay the bill, and students do the work. Shouldn’t they discuss meeting in the middle?

Imagine my surprise when a colleague shared the story of a study abroad student losing her luggage. I anticipated some small faux pas that was probably addressed in pre-departure orientation. What I didn’t expect to hear is when my colleague asked her to identify the contents of her bag, the student couldn’t do it: “I don’t know what’s in it, my mom packed it.”

Kids? Pack your own bags. Parents? Let them pack their own bags.


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