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When Helicopter Parents Land on the College Campus: 10 Telling Trends

Posted on Monday September 26, 2011 by Staff Writers

Parents just want what’s best for their children, and the parents of college aged children (also known as young adults) are no exception. But some parents take concern and caring to a whole new level, bearing down on their children, and even college faculty and staff in the name of a quality education for their precious students. These parents, engaging in “helicopter” activity, hover so much that they often do more harm than good, preventing students from developing into self-sufficient adults.

What exactly are helicopter parents doing on the college campus? You might be surprised to find out. Read on to see how parents stalk their children through campus video feeds, impersonate students, and even negotiate job offers.

  1. Watching campus video feeds

    We’ve all heard of daycares with webcams that allow parents to check in on their little ones while they’re away at work, but at least one parent has taken this concept to college. Chip Timmons, associate director of admissions at Wabash College reports that one of his friends followed his daughter’s class schedule and her route on campus, finding live video feeds from the campus that would allow him to check in and make sure that she was going to each of them every day. This man was apparently unashamed at his obvious invasion of privacy, as he would call or send an email to his daughter each time he missed her on the feed, wondering what her excuse was for not making it to class. The lack of shame continued as he proudly shared the tale with Timmons, who, upon hearing this story, believes “you could have knocked [him] over with a feather.”

  2. Filling out applications

    Parents who help too much can be hurtful for students in the admissions process, according to Bruce Jones, assistant director of admissions at Whitman College. Although it may be tempting for parents to fill out tedious application forms for their would-be students, it’s important that they do it themselves. In fact, at least one prospective student at Whitman was penalized for getting too much help from a parent: penmanship discrepancies revealed that most of the general information had been filled out by a parent, and the college had to ask for additional information. Of course, that is not to say that children should not get help from their parents in the admissions process. However, parents should play a supportive, guiding role by answering questions and remembering achievements rather than simply taking the reins full force.

  3. Calling the admissions office

    Students are ultimately the ones being chosen for admission to college, but that doesn’t stop helicopter parents from stepping into the process. It is extremely common for admissions officers to receive calls from well-meaning but overbearing parents who are wondering how their child stacks up. And even parents who think they are doing their children a favor by “demonstrating interest” in the college should know that often, schools — including Dartmouth — don’t even record communications with students, much less parents. Further, some experts point out that students may be rated on their leadership and potential for success in college, including taking their own initiative to check in on admissions, set up appointments, and make difficult calls that some parents are all too happy to take care of for them.

  4. Stepping in for college interviews

    Parental involvement in admissions goes so much further than filling out applications and harassing admissions staff. Some parents actually believe that they can step in and replace their child in admissions interviews. Teege Mettille, assistant admissions director at Lawrence University, shares a tale of a parent who didn’t realize the interview would actually be happening with her son instead of her. Mettille’s tale culminated in the shocking realization: “After I mentioned how excited I was to meet her student, she said…. ‘Wait…. he doesn’t need to be here for this, does he?’”

  5. Checking student email

    Email is a personal thing for most of us, students included. After all, that’s why we have usernames and passwords: they ensure that you can keep your messages away from prying eyes. But at least one mom has decided that she has a right to be a prying eye in her sons’ student email accounts. In an ABC News profile, Robyn Lewis revealed that although she is done homeschooling her two sons, she still spends hours each day managing their education from afar, including checking their student email. Lewis also organizes their lives with to-do emails, proofreading, laundry, and even checking their grades and bank account balances. Although some students might be frustrated by so much parental involvement, her sons Brendan and Ethan actually report that they appreciate their “secretary mom.” Despite the appreciation of her sons, experts believe that Lewis may not be helping them as much as she thinks, and in fact, is sending a message that they are not capable of handling their own lives.

  6. Discussing test grades with instructors

    Federal law prohibits faculty from revealing or discussing grades with anyone other than students. But that certainly doesn’t stop helicopter parents from trying to investigate their child’s academic performance anyway. It is not uncommon for parents to call or email college instructors to discuss how a test was graded, or find out how their child can receive more assistance. Time and time again, faculty members have to refer parents back to their students, reminding them that they cannot divulge the information. Administrators believe that this practice supports healthy communication, putting the discussion back between the parent and student, rather than bypassing the student who benefits most from the information.

  7. Impersonating their children in phone calls

    For some parents, federal law is not enough to keep them from prying into their child’s academic affairs. Beyond protesting the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which is the law behind faculty-student confidentiality, some have taken it upon themselves to skirt the law by impersonating their children in information-seeking telephone calls. There’s no word on what colleges are doing to combat this trend, but we’re assuming they’re too baffled by the intrusion to act on it just yet.

  8. Haggling with job recruiters

    For some parents, the helicopter ride does not end with college, rather, continuing on into job offers for graduating seniors. The St. Petersburg Times reports that Florida State University parents contact and negotiate with job recruiters on behalf of their students, because they “want to make sure Junior gets a good salary and work schedule.” One has to wonder if this continues with the interview and even promotions, or if parents (and students) eventually learn to take off the training wheels.

  9. Requiring constant contact

    Technology has made it so that we can be in contact at all times. Sometimes, this is a good thing, but for students and helicopter parents, it can be harmful. Cell phones, texting, Facebook, and Twitter allow parents to virtually walk through a student’s day with them, and some parents actually do. Parents may call to wake their student up in the morning, followed by reminder texts, calls about decisions big and small, and even editing papers, all in the course of one day. Experts believe that some parents may be involved in constant contact simply because technology makes it possible to do so, but parents need to back off and let their child handle day-to-day issues.

  10. Helicopter parents may be doing good

    Let’s be fair: although helicopter parents get a bad rap for their sometimes extreme behavior, some of them may actually be doing good. When done right, helicopter parenting can result in higher levels of engagement for students, including “after-class discussions with professors, intensive writing exercises and independent research,” all of which are great for developing deeper learning in college. Studies reveal that students also tend to be more satisfied with their college experience. Experts believe that in some cases, parent intervention is not a reflection on the parent, but rather a student who needs a little extra support due to academic difficulties. Still, experts are quick to remind parents that the results of excessive hovering can be negative, and that students should not grow accustomed to parents helping them through school.