As Kids Shuffle from Schools to Sports, Many Wonder if All This Attention is Actually Hurting Them
In recent years, the demand for higher education paired with a culture of increased job insecurity have led many parents to become greatly involved in the academic and professional success of their children. While these so-called "helicopter parents" insist their methods are merely indicative of a supportive, close-knit family dynamic, psychologists and educational leaders warn that over-parenting can stunt child development and produce young men and women with no sense of independence or social connectivity.
Helicopter parents are so named because they seemingly "hover" over their children. They confer with teachers and school administrators about grades and classroom performance; take an active involvement in sports and other extracurricular activities; and are generally very attuned to their child's educational experiences – and difficulties. Helicopter parenting is not a new concept, as the term was first coined in the 1960s. In recent years, however, many higher learning institutions have noted unusually heavy involvement among parents of college students. They contact professors about less-than-adequate grades, phone administrators when problems arise with living accommodations, and otherwise act as advocates for their adult offspring. And while college faculty members are often apprehensive – if not downright cynical – about the helicopter parenting style, the movement has generated a substantial amount of public support.
In an article titled "In Defense of Helicopter Parents," Dr. Thomas Plante of Psychology Today noted that involved parents are a valuable asset to school districts that are forced to tackle massive budget cuts. These mothers and fathers assist with extracurricular activities, allow fundraisers in their homes and otherwise support their child's educational institution. He also writes that parents have long been encouraged to take an active role in their child's educational development. Helicopter parenting may just be a direct result of this perceived obligation. College Parents of America President James Boyle told Education.com that overparenting is a rational response to high dropout rates among today's college students. While roughly 2 million men and women are enrolled at higher learning institutions, about one third of them will leave before receiving a degree. He also argues that complaints directed at helicopter parents are somewhat exaggerated, since the responsibilities of attending class, choosing a major and finding a career still fall on the shoulders of students.
Support for helicopter parenting was bolstered by a recent study conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement. According to The Washington Post, this study found that students with helicopter parents were more engaged with their learning materials and reported a more satisfactory college experience than their counterparts with less involved mothers and fathers. Furthermore, they were more apt to engage in discussions with professors, participate in extracurricular activities and excel in fields such as writing and critical thinking. "Compared with their counterparts, children of helicopter parents were more satisfied with every aspect of their college experience," said Indiana University Professor George D. Kuh, who led the study.
However, many experts warn about the downsides of helicopter parenting – namely, adult children who have a hard time adjusting to college life without mom and dad to guide them. In 2010, MSNBC News contributor Rachel Rettner reported a study that found helicopter parents have a very detrimental effect on their child's personality development. Researchers surveyed 300 college freshmen; those with overbearing parents (usually mothers) said that they were "less open to new actions and ideas, as well as more vulnerable, anxious and self-conscious," in comparison to their peers whose parents were less involved.
In July 2012, Daily Mail Online contributor Tamara Cohen reported that helicoptering often leads to negative consequences for parents, as well. A survey of American mothers found that "intensive mothering" was linked to high rates of mental health issues. Women who struggled with sharing parental responsibilities reported low degrees of "satisfaction with life," while those who were continually challenged by the prospect of parenting – so much so that they enlisted in the help of a child specialist – reported relatively high levels of stress and chronic depression. The study's authors noted that "intensive mothering" is often a byproduct of the common misconception that overparenting leads to successful children. "[Intensive parents] may think that it makes them better mothers, so they are willing to sacrifice their own mental health to enhance their children's cognitive, social and emotional outcomes," they wrote. "In reality, intensive parenting may have the opposite effect on children from what parents intend."
In September 2012, Lewis & Clark College President Barry Glassner wrote in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that parents can use "constructive engagement" to remain involved in their collegiate child's life without being too overbearing. College is a tenuous time for young people, and they require the support and encouragement of their parents. However, this period of their lives also has the potential to build valuable skills, such as independent thinking and creative problem solving, that can be diminished if parents hover too closely. "College is a time when parents can grant their children the precious opportunity to take responsibility as they develop into independent young men and women, fully prepared to be productive and engaged citizens," Glassner wrote. "Parents can help by gently pushing their children to embrace complexity and diversity and to stretch the limits of their comfort zones."
Naturally, when students encounter obstacles or personal crises, parents should nurture and counsel their children in order to restore their self-confidence. However, mothers and fathers need not resort to helicoptering in order to effectively handle the situation. If a student receives poor grades, his or her overbearing parents might place an angry phone call to their child's teacher or principal. However, a much more constructive approach might be a sit-down meeting with the teacher to discuss areas of improvement, followed by a discussion of options such as tutoring or supplementary education with the child. If a college student struggles with a difficult roommate, parents should refrain from demanding a change in living accommodations. Instead, they should encourage the child to resolve the conflict on his or her own, meeting independently with a housing officer if the situation becomes intolerable. By offering parental support when needed – and encouraging children to solve their own problems the rest of the time – parents can do their part to ensure their offspring develop into well-rounded, fully functioning adults.
While no one disputes that helicopter parents have the best interests of their children in mind, many have warned that too much interest can lead to long-term problems. Achieving the balance between supportive and hands-off is difficult for many parents – but studies have found that this approach produces adults who are independent, self-confident and able to succeed academically and professionally.
Mark Rauterkus Mark.Rauterkus@gmail.com
PPS Summer Dreamers' Swim and Water Polo Camp Head Coach
Pittsburgh Combined Water Polo Team
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