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Helicopter Parents: A Minimally Useful Study And My Suggestions For More Research

January 24, 2008

I’m loath to push down the post on “Why I teach history,” but other issues are pressing. Over a year ago I took note here of the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting.” In that piece I focused on the dangers of over-involved parents. Today I want to approach the topic from a more empirical angle.

This new look at the helicopter parent phenomenon is enabled by some timely research. Today’s Chicago Tribune picked up an AP story by Justin Pope on helicopter parents. The story cites a positive view of these kinds of parents from the point of view of the students. This comes out of research done by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, in a report now generally known as the “Freshmen Survey,” and supported by UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. I’m going to stick with Pope’s version of events as I comment.

—————

– “The conventional wisdom has it that so-called helicopter parents are annoying their children by hovering over their every move as they apply to college. But it turns out most freshmen are happy with how involved mom and dad were during their college search.”

TL: Well, they’ve been socialized to agree that it’s the way things ought to be. It shouldn’t seem surprising that students go along with this. In my experience, it’s the professors, administrators, and college advisors who first raised concern about this phenomenon.

– “In fact, new survey data suggest that the bigger problem may be the opposite — parents sometimes aren’t as attentive as their children would like.”

TL: If this data comes from the student’s perspective alone, well, that could be called dependency. And since we’re discussing, in essence, the famous CIRP “Freshmen Survey,” we have to assume this is the students’ perspective only.

– “That’s especially true for Hispanic students, who were much more likely than whites to say their parents weren’t involved enough in areas like helping them apply to college and helping them choose classes once they got there.”

TL: But are these students comparing their experiences to their fellow white students? Does the survey account for change over time about this phenomenon? Aren’t a lot of our “needs” driven by what we see going on around us?

– “The figures, from a massive survey of college freshman out Thursday from UCLA, are part of an emerging body of research on what has largely been an anecdotal trend: the idea that parents have become much more involved in the lives of their teenage children, perhaps unhealthily so.”

TL: This need for empirical versus anecdotal evidence is all too true. I’ve noticed this phenomenon, otherwise grouped under the umbrella idea of “entitlement students,” since about 2004.

– “In some ways, the latest survey complicates the picture. Overall, 74 percent of the more 270,000 surveyed freshmen said their parents, or guardians, displayed the ‘right amount’ of involvement in their applications. About 11 percent said their parents were involved “too much” and about 15 percent ‘too little.’ ”

TL: Again, relative to what prior baseline? I don’t believe that the CIRP’s Freshmen Survey as asked about this topic before. I guess it’s illuminating to know that that 74% agree with this behavior, in the sense that the “helicopter parent” trend has now been verified from the students’ perspective. But what of its legitimacy? You can’t answer that unless you have a sense of what education is supposed to be about, a philosophy of education. The goal of education, to me, is to create independent, free-thinking, ethical citizens. Asking students what they think of this is—please pardon my somewhat tired parallel—like letting the inmates run the asylum. We need to know what parents and educators think about this. Are their generational differences among the parents of students?

– ” ‘We were hearing outrageous stories’ about helicopter parents said University of California at Los Angeles researcher Sylvia Hurtado. ‘To our surprise, a great majority say it’s just right, even though we’re hearing a great deal of stories from admissions officers, financial aid officers, faculty who say parents are calling about their daughter’s exam and whatnot.’ “

TL: Again, Ms. Hurtado, why is this a “great surprise?” This is entirely appropriate: those concerned with the ends of education are the same folks passing along “outrageous stories” about parental interference.

– “Exactly what conclusions should be drawn from the findings is open to debate. It could be that parents are finding a good balance between gentle prodding and being hands-off. But it could also be that students want lots of help from their parents — and perhaps get too much for their own good. Further research will evaluate whether the students’ attitudes toward their parents change during college.”

TL: Mr. Pope, the only reason the conclusions are open to debate is that the Institute, for this particular survey, only asked students—err the inmates—about the problem. Ask those with a developed philosophy of education, and I very strongly suspect that we’ll get an entirely different tone of replies (i.e. not a 74% approval rating).

– “Twenty percent of black students, and 27 percent of Hispanic ones, reported their parents were not involved enough in their applications. Hispanic students, who are much more likely than whites to be first-generation college students, also were substantially more likely than whites to say their parents had too little involvement in areas such as dealing with college officials and choosing college courses.”

TL: It could be the case that these two populations actually need advice on what to do. In that case, they do not need helicopter parents as much as the sympathetic ears of those who they trust and who also understand the intricacies of the Educational-Industrial Complex. It seems to me that, in helicopter parents, we have a sign of a bifurcated student population: those with an excess of resources on how to game the system, versus those with little or no sense of navigating the maze of financial aid, extracurriculars, and the variety of courses offered.

– “Those numbers seem to confirm what many in college admissions have been saying for years: Boosting the comparatively low proportion of Hispanics who go on to college will require concerted efforts by recruiters, guidance counselors and financial aid officers to help them through the process. ‘Our parents are unaware of the issues involved, so they couldn’t helicopter, hover, if they wanted to,’ said Vicky Evans, college counselor at Downtown College Prep, a charter school in San Jose, Calif., that serves mostly Hispanic students.

TL: As an acting student advisor, I can confirm this: some of my best results come from first and second time meetings with minority and first-time college students. In many ways I exist for their benefit.

– “Downtown College Prep takes students on college visits, helps them step-by-step with the admissions process, helps them fill out financial aid forms and even has an alumni coordinator who continues to work with them once they leave for college, Evans said. With some parents, language issues are the main barrier to being more involved, but others simply don’t realize the economic value of a college degree.”

—————

Per Evans final comments, many involved in higher education don’t understand that taking a vocational view of one’s time in college can also be quite harmful. Most students—as well as many parents, faculty, college advisors, and college recruiters—don’t understand the subtle difference between these statements:

a. If job, then college.
b. If college, then job.

The true statement is (a), not (b)—but most people only think in terms of (b).

College is a necessary but not sufficient condition to acquiring most jobs in the U.S. economy. If that were widely understood, I think that students in the United States would get a lot more out of their college experience.

But back to the research and the article, I contend that more studies are needed to understand why the helicopter parent phenomenon is problematic. The UCLA/HERI study only confirms that parents are very involved and many students are happy about it. Okay, so what? Two new lines of research will help us better understand the problem:

1. What do educators (broadly defined as faculty and administrators) in universities think about helicopter parents? How many of them are satisfied with parental involvement levels? How does this differ, per Vicky Evans perspective, by school and ethnicity? Let’s survey the other side of the issue.

2. What’s the historical situation? How does parental involvement today differ from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s? What’s happened? Maybe this research doesn’t exist? But let’s see the story as it has unfolded.

Progress on both these fronts will help us get to the meat of the phenomenon that is helicopter parenting. – TL

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7 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    As the parent of a high school senior, I'm seeing, first-hand, that the entire college selection and admission process is vastly different than when I sought out post-secondary education. I had a knowledgeable high school counselor who helped guide me, and with his help I obtained scholarships, applied to one university, got accepted, graduated, and never doubted that it was a good decision.

    Nowadays, high school counselors seem to have less knowledge of individual students and their strengths/interests, so they toss a pile of college literature at kids to “look through,” and that's about it. They send out emails TO PARENTS reminding us to “take our kids on campus visits,” and “due to increased competition for a limited number of openings, remind your student to apply to at least 5 schools.” In other words, parents are being encouraged to “hover.”

    Teens (especially ones who have never had older siblings on a college campus) need somebody's guidance to navigate this unfamiliar territory, and since counselors don't seem willing (or able?) to take on that role, parents who can, often do. In addition, at today's high cost of college tuition, if a parent is paying for it, it's no surprise they stay involved.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for the post.

    My experience echoes yours. I had a h.s. counselor, at a mid-sized Missouri school, who was actively involved in helping with college selection. With that, all my posts assume involved counselors who only need to be corrected or redirected.

    I had no idea that many, or a significant number, have abdicated this responsibility. If this is truly the case, then I understand how parents are pressed into hovering. Or at least I understand how it might be difficult to let go when they've become intimately involved.

    Still, even if counselors have abdicated, it seems to me that colleges must necessarily assume that their students are freethinkers. I suppose the h.s. counselor situation just makes that transition more acute for students—meaning being independent. Of course being “independent” here means working outside one's family to gather information and judge the outside world.

    The question I would put to parents is this: how long do you want your children to depend on you? – TL

  3. you know, we had a counselor at my high school (a Catholic high school) and I never took him seriously. In fact, I did my best to avoid meeting with him because he didn't seem interested in what I (or my family) might have wanted, but rather simply at “getting people to college.” In my family, that was never the question–it was which one. And that was a debate that he wasn't really prepared to engage in. I suppose my parents were “hoverers” in that respect. But when I went 2,100 miles away for college, the hovering stopped, and they more or less let me go out on my own–something I'm profoundly grateful. I'd be careful about assigning too much approbation to parents who are involved in the application process; isn't it better that parents and families help make and shape the decision rather than some counselor? That's just my two cents. (now, to be clear, this calling of professors and whatnot has got to stop; that's when you know you've gone too far.)

  4. CM: As I alluded to in the last paragraph of my comment, I think it boils down, for the parent, to knowing the proper time for letting the bird fly. That's what your parents did for you. But you're absolutely right in that one can't fault a parent for trying to find the open air for their soon-to-be-flying chicks. – TL

  5. We should be less concerned about the helicopters and more concerned about students who enter college without a parachute.

    My thoughts on what the research says can be found at: http://everydaypsychology.blogspot.com/index.html

    Tiny url: http://tinyurl.com/3x7lrt

    The post is titled: Helicopter Parents: disturbing trend or urban myth?

    paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.

  6. Dr. Mattiuzzi,

    Thanks for the link to your weblog. I went there and found the precise url: http://everydaypsychology.blogspot.com/2008/03/helicopter-parents-disturbing-trend.html.

    As a college advisor, I think you're mostly right. Generally it's not a bad thing for parents to be involved. Since all colleges are worried about retention, any help that a student receives in negotiating the maze of higher education should help.

    But there are exceptions. What kind of help is being given? Has the student made a good faith effort to figure things out? Is the student a first-generation attendee? What are the attitudes of the parents, student, and administrator?

    Thanks for coming by! – TL

  7. Tim:

    We're in complete agreement: each event needs to be be evaluated independently.

    That having been said, what I am suggesting is that college advisers should avoid reinforcing the idea that helicopter parenting is a problem.

    It is more typically the case that young students get too little, rather than too much support.

    Parents should be encouraged to be involved. When they cross over the line, advisers can deal with those cases individually.

    We hear about helicopter parents because it is a “man bites dog” story. We don't hear enough about kids who need their parents to be involved because it is just a “dog bites man” story.

    Best regards.

    paul.

    paul g. mattiuzzi, ph.d.

    http://psyris.com

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