Helicopter Parents: disturbing trend or urban myth?

As children head towards college, should we worry about parents being overly involved, overprotective and excessively supportive? Or should we instead be concerned about kids who are on their own without a parachute?

(A shorter version of this article can be read here)

It's Spring
, so the college application, admission and selection process is coming to an end. Parents of high school seniors are both exhilarated and fatigued from that long, last sprint to the finish. The enormous hurdles presented by parenting a child and then parenting a teenager have been cleared. It's time to celebrate graduation. Soon, the kid will be off to college, and finally, there will be some peace and quiet in the empty nest. But then you realize, it's still a marathon, and you are not done. And then, someone tells you that rather than being a help, you are actually a hindrance. After years of functioning as a member of your child's support staff, now they are telling you that you are actually just a "helicopter parent," preventing your child from flying on their own.

This story has been written many times. The evidence is always anecdotal. College advisers and administrators obviously have stories to tell. They have seen the extreme examples of parental over-involvement. Their time with parents is often spent with the parents who have complaints. Many have been to workshops teaching them how to "manage" today's parents.

In a November 2006 MSNBC article, a college counselor was willing to be quoted as saying that the "problem" of hovering parents "has now reached epidemic proportions." In a March 2008 Sacramento Bee article, a college counselor estimated that the rate of parental hovering stands at 30 percent and is increasing 2 to 3 percent a year. In the online magazine Key, a guide to college life, we are offered a list of "signs and symptoms," as if you should check to see if you suffer from this disorder. If you help your kid write a paper, or provide extra money, you may be afflicted. On the Today Show in October 2007, "national mom expert" StacyDeBroff pegged the rate for this problem at 60 to 70 percent of "all" college parents. She provided a sort of diagnostic system to describe the different types of hovering parents, and she advised that some may need to "get help."

A USA Today story from Februray 2007 described "what's believed to be the first scholarly research on parents who hover too closely over offspring." This "scholarly research" appears to have been published only in USA Today, and it is likely the original source for the 60 to 70 percent epidemic figure cited by the "mom expert." But this study is based entirely on interviews with 50 "college officials." In other words, it is nothing more than a collection of anecdotes.

On this topic, I was able to find three sources of reliable data. I searched both the web and the professional literature.

In March 2007, the College Board reported on a survey of some 1700 students randomly drawn from the pool of SAT applicants. The College Board was looking at "hovering" occurring during the application process. What they found is that there is "little evidence of extreme or intrusive parental involvement." From a list of tasks on which parents could either help or take control, "only a small number of students reported what could be considered extreme behavior on the part of their parents." The behavior in which parents were most likely to be "very involved" (32%) was "encouraging" students to apply to certain schools. The two tasks on which the parents were most likely to take control were filling out financial aid forms (12%) and "deciding what colleges the students could afford" (16%). The latter finding begs the question: whose money is it?

The number of students reporting that their parents actually took control and did things for them (like writing essays, filling out applications or meeting with college counselors) was on the order of only one to three percent.

Based on their judgment about tasks that parents really should help with, the College Board concluded that "much of the reported parental involvement is actually very positive and supportive."

In January 2008, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) released a note on this topic based on their long-running "CIRP Freshman Survey." With 700 participating schools, they gather data from some 400,000 students each year. In contrast to the College Board, HERI looked at the perceptions of students, rather than actual behaviors. On five out of six measures of parental involvement, more students said that they received "too little" help from parents, rather than "too much. " On all of the measures, sizable majorities said that they received the "right amount" of help. The only item for which the number of students complaining about too much help exceeded the number receiving too little was the actual decision to go to college ("get up off that couch").

The three questions most relevant to the so-called "hovering" phenomenon had to do with whether parents were involved in choosing college activities, choosing courses, and dealing with college officials. Less than 4% said that their parents were over-involved in choosing their activities and courses. Less than 6% said that their parents were too involved in dealing with campus officials. In contrast, 24% said they wanted more help with choosing courses. 22% wanted more help with choosing activities. And 17% wanted more help dealing with problems on campus.

From the students' point of view, there is not that much hovering going on (at most, only 6% say their parents are too involved), and there are a lot of students wishing that their parents would hover more.

Finally, there are the findings in the 2007 Annual Report from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This ongoing project focuses on the development of strategies to enhance educational programs, the learning process and overall student success. As part of a much larger yearly survey, 4500 freshmen from 24 institutions were asked about family support: how often their parents had intervened on their behalf to help them solve problems at school and how often they were in contact with their parents.

The NSSE found that 13 percent of first year students reported that their parents frequently intervened on campus. That 13 percent figure does not actually define the scope of the "hovering problem." As we saw above, more often than not (like 94% of the time), the students want their parents to be involved.

More importantly, this report goes on to note that the "students who have the most frequent contact with their parents are at least as engaged and often more engaged" in the academic process and in learning activities that lead to success. Those with parents who stay in contact and help them deal with problems on campus are also more satisfied with their college experience and report having gained more from college.

So what do we learn?

First, there is no disturbing trend or epidemic to be observed. "Helicopter parenting" is simply a pejorative term, and the frequency is not 60 percent or 30 percent or even 13 percent. The figure might be 6 percent, the number of students who say that their parents are overly involved. Or it might just be the one to three percent number reported by the College Board.

Obviously, there will be cases in which parents go overboard and in which they are overly-assertive and over-involved. But from what you can read on this topic, it seems to be more of a problem for educators than for students.

The available data suggest that parental involvement is a good thing, just as common sense would tell us. Yes, kids need to grow up, separate from their parents, become independent and, as psychologists say, "individuate." But that is not something that can be accomplished just by moving into a dorm. College involves many challenges, and it makes no sense to insist that young adults do this on their own, without help, and by trial and error. Freshmen enter college with different skill sets, different adaptive abilities and different levels of maturity. For some, the transition from home is a smooth ride with no bumps. Others encounter nightmare scenarios and need help.

What colleges and universities should be concerned about are all of those students who enter and then fail. The average retention rate for entering freshmen is less than 75 percent. That's just in the first year. Rather than spreading stories about parents-from-hell, what colleges should be doing is focusing on their students' need for support of all different types. Indeed, it should raise a red flag in a parent's mind when they hear a college official saying that helicopter parents are a problem. It actually says more about the administrator's attitudes than it does about parental behaviors, and it calls their judgment into question.

Here's the correct response a college adviser should give when asked to comment on this urban myth: "We sometimes encounter what you might call a helicopter parent, but we are actually more concerned about getting parents involved. That's what most students want and what they actually need. We're less concerned about the helicopters and more concerned about students who come to us without a parachute."

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.