Helicopter parenting is receiving a lot of press lately, with gentle and not-so-gentle posts circulating on social media. With the new school year underway and a new crop of freshmen learning to navigate in a new place, there’s also a new group of parents trying to figure out a “new normal.” Along with all of this “newness” comes the challenge of parenting effectively and appropriately—even when parents’ hearts hurt from missing their newly launched children.
helicopter parent (noun, informal) a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of labels—parenting or otherwise—however this particular label intrigues me. The idea of identifying as a helicopter parent pushes me to examine my own parenting strategies and impulses. Please understand I’m not here to name call or to dissect another parent’s actions under a microscope. I use this label to look inward. We parents come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. We have different hot buttons. We pick different battles. As parents, we each must set our own boundaries with our own children. Some of our techniques will work—some will not. That’s life. That’s parenting. And any seasoned parent knows, parenting is definitely not one-size-fits-all.
As we launch our kids, helicopter parenting tops the list of parenting practices to be aware of during this time of transition. Again, this isn’t about “right” or “wrong” or judging others. It’s to inspire us to review our own parenting practices and seek ways to improve how we interact with our own children. In my case, the idea of this label of excessive parenting is a check and balance system I use to manage my maternal urges and instincts. You see, I’m a fixer. I am wired to jump in and help other people (especially my kids) problem solve, whether they want my help or not.
But since my firstborn left for college, I’ve learned to parent differently. After all, this is college—not high school.
Changing roles for students AND parents
Once a child launches, roles and responsibilities change for both student and parents. Does that mean we stop all contact? Of course not! Does that mean we’re not allowed to worry? No way, we’ll always worry. Do they become an afterthought? Not a chance! It does mean we must recognize the growth and development that happens during the college years. These are the years our kids hone their skills to become life-ready adults. And isn’t that our goal? Don’t we want to have healthy, happy, young adults who can survive (and thrive) in the real world?
I interviewed many people about the controversial topic of helicopter parenting as I was writing Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage. I met with administrators, professors, psychologists, parents, and students. I received passionate feedback in regard to this phenomenon, especially about appropriate communication between parents and students. One common theme came through loud and clear: Contact in itself is not a problem. It only becomes a problem when it inhibits the growth and development of the child.
University professionals, like most parents, want students to develop the capacities to make wise decisions, cultivate healthy relationships, and navigate into adulthood. Of course, educators are human (many with children of their own). They understand the parental pull to protect and guide. More so, educators want to help foster, not hinder, students’ abilities to develop independence. Educators recognize that a transfer of power is necessary if students are to cultivate the skills necessary to handle the complex demands of modern life.
What’s a parent to do?
If you’re like me and concerned about maintaining appropriate involvement with your college student, take a good look at your role and how involved you are in his life. I know you mean well and care deeply (as do most parents), but ask yourself if you step in to help more often than necessary. If your intervention is needed to avoid a total disaster, of course you should act. But if your definition of “total disaster” is a bad grade or a roommate spat, maybe you need to change your thinking. If we’re always offering solutions, how will our kids learn the problem-solving skills to overcome obstacles? After all, mistakes can create powerful learning opportunities.
It takes open and honest conversation to set healthy boundaries both students and parents can agree upon. Having frank conversations and setting concrete expectations about communication prevents unnecessary parental anxiety while allowing students to grow up and develop autonomy. For some families, healthy contact may mean a daily text. For others, it may be a weekend family Skype session. Some may agree to not contact their child more than once per week. Or they may schedule a biweekly chat time.
Of course, nobody knows your student as well as you do. And nobody loves your student like you do. Or will advocate like you will. There may come a time when your child goes overboard and needs a lifeline—when parental action is completely appropriate and necessary. If you see signs of dangerous or destructive behavior, make a call for intervention. If alcohol or drugs are negatively affecting his life, pick up the phone. If he’s failing out of school or suffering from intense anxiety, guide him to seek professional help. What can you do when you realize your child is seriously struggling and needs help? Contact the college counseling center, the office of student affairs, or the dean of students for guidance. They also care about your student’s safety, well-being, and success. They have protocols in place to partner with you to be the support your child needs to get back on course.
We cannot disaster-proof our kids, no matter how much we want to. There’s not enough Bubble Wrap in the world to protect them from every bump, bruise, or danger they’ll encounter. Most of these experiences ultimately become beneficial life lessons.
A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.
The big question is, how can we empower our children to be a life-ready adults? Personally, this makes me think about how I act and react. Am I a helicopter parent if I pick up the phone and call “just because” on a Tuesday night? No. Does this mean I can’t do her laundry when she’s home for fall break? Or send a get well soon care package when she’s suffering from a cold? Of course not. Whether our kids are toddlers or college freshman, they need us. And we need them. There’s nothing wrong with parents providing care and counsel for a child. There’s no shame in checking in with our college students now and then, as long as we remember to keep perspective and not inhibit their growth and development.
*This blog contains excerpts from Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage. Buy it today at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or ask for it by name at your favorite bookseller.