Let’s Drop ‘Helicopter Parents’—From Our Vocabulary

For some time I’ve been troubled by the use of “helicopter parent” as a term of disparagement.

A quick search for the phrase on The Chronicle’s Web site uncovered a blog entry on “Engaging Parents to Achieve Greater Enrollment-Management Success” and another bemoaning this phenomenon: “Facebook Spawns an Army of ‘Helicopter Parents.’” It appears that we academics want it both ways. First we ask parents to help get their children to our institutions. And then we ask those parents to stay away.

Not only is this approach illogical, but it’s also unsupported by research and ignorant of cultural differences. Studies have found that parental engagement supports higher levels of student autonomy, higher levels of psychological adjustment and life satisfaction, and higher levels of participation in and satisfaction with college.

For many first-generation college students, parents and family members are an integral part of the college experience, whether celebrating her successes or assisting with family responsibilities.

We know that parental involvement is positive: Middle-class, college-educated parents impart cultural capital, and their children generally do better in college. One study found that students without parents to transmit that knowledge still benefit from advisers who act similarly to guide their academic journeys.

I have worked with parents who needed help in developing an identity that doesn’t include such active involvement in their children’s lives. In fact, as the parent of a 22-year-old and a 24-year-old, I have significant firsthand experience with this challenge.

When all else fails, I summon compassion by remembering, as Marc Cutright, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Texas, said in his article “From Helicopter Parent to Valued Partner: Shaping the Parental Relationship for Student Success,” that the emotional nature of parental interactions stems from “the reality of parent and child love, something we can too easily forget.”

That bond doesn’t just disappear when a child has begun college. Cutright continues: “If parents sometimes seem irrational, it might be worth asking if our own closest relationships always run smoothly and logically.”

Mine sure don’t. But that doesn’t mean I stop trying. Nor should we stop trying to work with parents. We are obligated to engage parents in a constructive way, letting them know that we value their involvement as we simultaneously help them learn new ways of being involved at this very challenging transitional point in their family’s life.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user AfghanistanMatters.]

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