Helicopter Parents: disturbing trend or urban myth?

This is a shorter version of an article I posted in the Spring, updated for back-to-school and off-to-college time. The original article (more discussion of the research and references to the "empty nest") can be found here.

It's back-to-school and off-to-college time. Soon, we will be hearing stories about college freshmen and their "helicopter parents." These are the parents who hover and can't let go, the ones who are overly involved, overprotective and excessively supportive.

This story has been written many times. In a November 2006 MSNBC online article, a college counselor was 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. An online guide to college life offers a list of "signs and symptoms" so you can 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" Stacy DeBroff said that this problem afflicts 60 to 70 percent of "all" college parents and advised that some may need to "get help."

There are actually three reliable sources of data on this topic, each based on large scale studies.

Surveying SAT applicants, the College Board found that there is "little evidence of extreme or intrusive parental involvement" and that "much of the reported parental involvement is actually very positive and supportive."

The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has reported that on measures of parental involvement, more college students said that they received "too little" help from parents, rather than "too much." A sizable majority said that they received the "right amount" of help.

Finally, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) showed that when parents maintained frequent contact with their children and helped them deal with problems on campus, the students were more engaged in the academic process, maintained better study habits, were more satisfied with their college experience and reported having gained more from college.

A USA Today story from Februray 2007 touted "what's believed to be the first scholarly research on parents who hover too closely over offspring." This "scholarly research" was based entirely on interviews with 50 "college officials." In other words, it was nothing more than a collection of anecdotes. College advisers and administrators obviously have stories to tell. They have seen the extreme examples.

The reality is that there is no disturbing trend or epidemic to be observed. Obviously, there will be cases in which parents go overboard. But the hovering actually seems to be more of a problem for educators than for students. Administrators have to deal with the parents who complain.

In fact, parental involvement is a good thing, as common sense would tell us. Yes, kids need to grow up and become independent. 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 coping 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 the students who enter and then fail. The average retention rate for entering freshmen is less than 75 percent.

Here is 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.