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Perhaps more than any other generation, Baby Boomers have been involved in their children's lives. They consult with teachers about their child's individual learning styles, which can be very positive. But they also call to argue about grades – sometimes when their child is in early elementary school. They get to know their child's coach, which can be helpful. But they also complain about how or how often their child is played. They try to know all their child's friends, which is responsible parenting. But sometimes they want to BE their child's best friend, when they should be the parent.
Now many of these over-involved parents are sending their children off to college. In fact, there are so many of them that colleges have coined a term to describe them: "helicopter parents," because they seem to be continually hovering over their children's lives.
At the University of New Hampshire, Scott Chesney, director of residential life, posted an open letter to parents on the school's Web site: "During the past five years, professionals at UNH and other universities around the country have noted a marked increase in the participation of parents in their daily decisions of their sons and daughters at the university. Quite frankly, this involvement goes well beyond what most of us (and I venture to guess, most of you) would have thought normal and appropriate when you were of college age. … I hope you see that at one level we embrace the notion of partnering with you to make your son's or daughter's experience as productive as possible. Frankly, however, we worry sometimes that your interventions may well be impeding your son's or daughter's climb toward independence…a step we know is absolutely essential and critical at this stage of life."
All over the country, college administrators report an increase in the incidence of helicopter parents. And some schools are taking action.
Many schools offer separate sessions at freshman orientation for parents and students. The parent sessions often focus on issues related to letting go, as well as more traditional topics like financial aid. The University of Vermont went so far as to assign special "parent bouncers" to keep parents from pushing their way into student-only orientation sessions.
Some experts believe that helicopter parenting is an outgrowth of the parents' own personal drive. Others suggest it reflects concerns about safety in a post-9/11 world, or worries about positioning their child for finding a job in a very competitive workplace. Still others note that cell phones have made parents and children instantly available to each other. A child who is upset about a grade may call the parent on the way out of class, when the distress is at its height. In addition, the huge tuition bills that many parents are paying may make some of them feel like they have a right to demand what they want for their money.
Whatever the reason, though, college officials urge parents to examine their own approach to determine whether they are becoming helicopter parents. Colleges want to work with parents, but they also want parents to back off enough to let their child develop the independence and autonomy that are critical to becoming functioning adults.
Parents should certainly notify the college if their child is distraught, depressed, suicidal or showing other serious psychological issues. They also should feel free to step in if they feel their child's physical health is threatened.
But these are very unusual circumstances that most parents will not have to deal with. For these parents, college officials offer some advice:
- Don’t call or email all the time. In fact, many colleges urge parents not to call the student at all – let the student call you.
- Don’t try to fix everything; let your student work it out if possible. Part of the value of going away to college is learning how to live on your own. That includes things from learning to do your own laundry to learning to cope with roommate disputes. If you think your student's roommate is dangerous, by all means call the school. But if your child and his or her roommates are disagreeing about things like playing music or staying up late, let them work it out.
- Realize that your student will make mistakes, and should have to learn to deal with the consequences of those mistakes. That’s how it is in the real world, and that is one of the main lessons your student should be learning in college.
- Encourage your student to become independent. Let your student know that you have faith in his or her ability to make decisions. When the child calls with a question, don't automatically find a solution; instead ask, "What do you think you should do?" And don't get involved in your child's grades. If your child has a problem with a grade, let him or her work it out with the teacher.
- Trust in the values you have instilled in your child. Know that, although they almost certainly will make some mistakes, they probably ultimately will hold true to those values.
- Finally, relax and enjoy the peace and quiet at home. Do something for yourself. Think about your own needs. After all, you have worked hard raising that child for 18 years -- you deserve a break.