A College Instructor’s Guide to Understanding Helicopter Parents

Understanding Helicopter Parents is the first step to dealing with them. June 5, 2010, I wrote an article for Suite101 entitled "A Parent Guide for Helping College Students." Let me begin with the that article.

Note: If you would like, you can scroll down and skip this article. However, if you are not familiar with Helicopter Parents, I encourage you to read it.

SeeTheProblem

A Parent Guide for Helping College Students

Learn what parents can and cannot do to help their college students and how to avoid becoming a "Helicopter Parent." Parents of college students want to help their children solve problems, but many learn that helping college students can be difficult. Those known as helicopter parents intercede on the behalf of their college students and occasionally cause more problems than they solve. Some seek information about their children only to learn that federal law imposes limits on what can be shared. However, there are things parents can and should do to help.

Helicopter Parents - Who are They?

“Is it possible to be a seemingly fully functioning, educated adult of 18 or 21 or more years and still be under the daily supervision of parents?” This was the question Bradley University’s Mary Ann Manos (2009) posed, and she answered it with “yes.” Their parents are known as Helicopter Parents. Unfortunately, these parents do not seem to understand what they should and should not do to help their children.

Most agree that "Helicopter Parents" intend well, but they hover over their children, ready to swoop down at a moment’s notice to solve the problems. Kantrowitz and Tyre (2006) attributed this phenomenon to baby boomer parents who are determined to give their children the best. However, this is not a new phenomenon. They mentioned that when General Douglas MacArthur and Franklin Delano Roosevelt went off to college their mothers followed, moving in close by.

In many cases students ask their parents for help. Hoover and Supiano (2008) reported on research conducted by the University of California that concluded students want more parental involvement, and University of Minnesota’s Margaret Savage contended that when parents get involved they are helpful. Not everyone agrees. A 21 year old student named Emily Langhals (Dempsy, 2009) explained, "If there are still students who have their parents call to fight their battles, the real world is just around the corner, and it's going to be a harsh wake-up call. You can't exactly have your parents call the boss because you're upset that you didn't get a certain assignment or promotion."

Some educators contend the problem is getting worse. Hyman and Jacobs (2010) wrote, “But now there are 'lawn-mower parents' – parents whose blades actually move across the ground as they try to mow down whatever stands in the way of their child's success.” “Tank Parents” is another self-explanatory moniker for this group.

Why Students do not Solve Problems Themselves

Some college students lack problem solving skills and a sense of personal responsibility. During their primary and secondary school years, mom or dad took care of everything, sometimes even the homework. Many did not learn that there were consequences to their actions or their lack of action. According to Kantrowitz and Tyre (2006), their hovering parents don’t allow them to develop self-sufficiency.

There are other reasons. Some students lack the interpersonal skills to confront an instructor. They often fear retribution if they do. Some may not know they have people and resources available to help them solve virtually any problem. Others know about these resources but lack the motivation or self-discipline to use them.

Why Parental Intervention May Make Matters Worse

Parental intervention seldom leads to an outcome the student could not have achieved alone. And most instructors are compassionate to students’ wants and needs, at least until a parent steps in. Hyman and Jacobs (2010) agree. They identified ten reasons why parents should not contact their children’s professors. Their list included the annoyance it creates for professors and the negative image it creates of the student. The student may lose “the pity factor” and be labeled as a child. It may also embarrass the student.

What Parents Cannot Do

Parents cannot demand certain information. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) significantly limits the information faculty and staff can share with parents. Questions like “Is my son showing up for class?” and “Why is my daughter failing?” will not be answered. Confrontational accusations like “My son says you aren’t teaching him anything. Why aren’t you teaching him? What gives?” will garner a response like, “Please have your son see me during my office hours.”

What Parents Can and Should Do

The following are things parents can do to help their children in college and avoid being seen as "helicopter parents."
  • Be Empathetic – Listen to your child, but don’t attempt to solve the problem.
  • Remain Objective – Refrain from pouring out sympathy. There are two sides to every story, and your child may not have all the facts. Furthermore, even the most trustworthy children may leave out a fact or two.
  • Guide and Mentor – Encourage your child solve the problem, and provide advice as needed.
  • Identify College Resources – Sometimes the best help a parent can provide is to refer the student to the resources available on campus.
  • Intervene When Absolutely Necessary – When the well-being of the child is compromised or in jeopardy, it is the parent’s obligation to intervene.
The last piece of advice is the most difficult to follow. “Absolutely necessity” is hard to define. Issues of physical and psychological well-being would normally qualify. But even in these cases, start with the parent liaison if the college has one. Otherwise contact a counselor.

There is a right way and a wrong way for parents to help their children in college solve problems. "Helicopter Parents" do it the wrong way, through intervention that is often counterproductive. Supportive, caring parents can and should help their children solve their own problems.

References

Dempsey, Eileen. “Helicopter Parents.” Ohio State Alumni Magazine,October 8, 2009.

Hoover, Eric; Supiano, Beckie. “Surveys of Students Challenge 'Helicopter Parent' Stereotypes.” Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/1/2008, Vol. 54 Issue 21.

Hyman, Jeremy & Jacobs, Lynne F. "10 Reasons Parents Should Never Contact College Professors." US News & World Report.com. May 12, 2010. (Accessed June 4, 2010).

Kantrowitz, Barbara & Tyre, Peg. “The Fine Art of Letting Go.”Newsweek, May 22, 2006.

Manos, Mary Ann. “Helicopter Parents: Empathic or Pathetic?” Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2009, Vol. 89 Issue 3.

Published on Jun 5, 2010

What do Helicopter Parents Say?

Some instructors do not know how to deal with difficult students.

It is tough dealing with some parents.

Some of the things an instructor might hear are:
  • How is my daughter doing in your class?
  • Is my son attending class regularly?
  • Why are you testing students on things you did not cover in class?
  • My daughter says everyone is failing. How do you explain that?

As a dean I heard even more from helicopter parents. There were very stern accusations of my instructors doing this or not doing that. Parents would threaten to go "over my head" if they were not satisfied. In extreme cases, parents would complain to the president of our college.

How Should Instructors Deal With Helicopter Parents?

The answer if carefully and professionally. However that can be difficult when a parents start raising their voice and make demands. My advice is:
  1. Be prepared.  Be ready for the worst and never ever show any anger to the parent.  Image that your discussion is being recorded "for quality purposes" and will be listened to by college administrators, maybe even the president.
  2. Listen.  Hear out the parent.  Use active listening techniques to assure you and the parent that you understand what is being said.  Neither confirm nor deny anything the parent tells you their child told them.  This can be tough when the students has lied to the parent, but you must not get defensive.
  3. Recommend the Student Talk to You.  Students may tell their parents that they have talked but you never listen and don't do anything.  Seldom was this the case for my faculty. Don't tell the parent the details of any prior communication with the student; just emphasis that you will be glad to address the issue directly with the student.
  4. Explain FERPA if Necessary.  Parents often don't want to hear that you cannot share specific details of how their child is performing in class, but you must adhere to the law.
  5. Share Common Knowledge if Pressed.  My boss would criticize me for saying to much to parents, but when I had an extremely angry parent on the phone, I would sometimes share general information that applied to all students.  As an instructor, you might say something like, "No, as stated in my syllabus, I don't accept late assignments." but don't get into an verbal battle over why you do so.  Another example of what you might say is, "That is incorrect.  I do accept extra credit."  However, don't say anything ab out the student and whether you have received extra credit assignments.
  6. Refer the Parent to an Administrator.  I told my instructors to feel free to make me the bad guy and refer parents to me.  If you do refer a parent to an administrator, do your best to communicate the facts with that person before "Mad Mom" of "Demanding Dad" make the call.  You should probably think twice before offering to transfer hostile helicopter parents.
  7. Tell the Complete Truth.  We are all human.  If you did accidentally give out information you shouldn't have, or if you did raise your voice a bit and argue with a parent, let your administrator hear that first from you.
  8. Talk to Other Instructors.   Based on the law, you should not discuss any student specifics with others at your college who don't have a need to know.  However, you may have a need to know how other instructors handle the situation that confronts you.  You should not specifically ask the Calculus I teacher how he handled your complaining Calculus II student.

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC).

My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences.

I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students.

After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


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