I remember sitting in Spanish class as a college sophomore, overhearing a classmate complain about the grade she had just received on a vocabulary comprehension test. She was so sure the test was "unfair" that she declared the teacher would be hearing from her mother.
Lo and behold, the next school day we were given a retest. I was dumbstruck. My classmate's mother had indeed called the school and demanded that our señora give us a "fair" exam. I don't know if I was in more shock over her mother actually intervening (my mother would have simply told me "life isn't always fair") or that the teacher caved.
But here we are, a decade later, and it seems as though my classmate's mother was on to something: helicopter parenting, a term that has come to define any parent who overly intercedes in his or her child's life. Today's parents seem to have forgotten how to let their kids learn from their own mistakes and, instead, quickly take care of the mistake themselves, only to teach them that mommy and daddy can - and can be expected to - mend anything.
Some encouragement and advice is always helpful, but going too far will do more than make teachers and professors dodge you; it could hinder your relationship with your child and leave your child with unrealistic expectations of what he or she can and should be able to handle on their own.
ADVANCE recently spoke with Patricia Somers, PhD, an associate professor in the department of education administration in the college of education at the University of Texas at Austin, to learn just who these helicopter parents are, how prevalent the trend is and how to avoid taking "helicoptering" to the extreme.
The Launch Pad
Somers first remembers seeing the term "helicopter parent" in a 1991 Newsweek article featuring emerging buzzwords: "Helicopter parent: A nosy grown-up who's always hovering around. Quick to offer a teacher unwanted help." (Ned Zeman, "Buzzwords," Newsweek, Sept. 9, 1991)
"Literally, it is a mother or father who hovers over a child, a student, of any age, in school settings from K-12 to higher education," Somers told ADVANCE.
After finding that the vast number of reports in both the popular media and higher education media were loosely based on speculation, Somers decided it was time to explore helicopter parenting further. "It hit me that this area was ripe for research," she told ADVANCE. "We needed an explorative study."
Somers gathered a team of grad students and spent a year interviewing 100 professionals (residence-life directors, student deans, academic advisors, etc.) at 60 public universities around the country.
Participants estimated that 40% to 60% of parents could be defined as helicopter parents on their respective campuses. The study also revealed that these parents were more prevalent in a student's first 2 years of college.
Somers also found that helicopter parenting can be seen "across the board" - from lower-, middle- and upper-class families. Staff members at commuter colleges with many first-generation college students told Somers these parents are calling and asking questions almost at the same rate as parents who have some college experience already.
"The [parents of] first-generation college students are asking different, more basic questions," Somers explained. "They want to know what an academic advisor is and how he or she can help their child and how to help their kids get into the appropriate classes."
The study further found that a helicopter parent can be a mother or a father, but that each tends to hover in a different manner. "We found that 60% of mothers tend to intervene on behalf of sons rather than daughters," shared Somers. "Fathers tend to intervene for both sons and daughters, but they want to go right to the top - to the dean or president of the university - rather than starting with an academic advisor."
Helicopter parents don't just sprout after their child graduates from high school and begins college. Most have the tendency to hover throughout their child's academic career, beginning as early as kindergarten.
Somers has unofficially interviewed several teachers and administrators, and she has shared her helicopter parent research with them. Most have confirmed they, too, find the same helicopter parenting from kindergarten through the high school level that is so prevalent in higher education, even in inner-city schools.
One principal described how students in his elementary school who get sent to the principal's office for misbehavior often use their cell phones to call their parents on their way to the office. "The parents then show up at the office or call about the same time the student shows up," Somers explained. "Then it becomes a conference with the parent there, and it may be more confrontational because of that.