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Mom Needs an 'A': Hovering, hyper-involved parents the topic of landmark study

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This is a quick, thoroughly un-scientific quiz for parents of college students:

  1. Do you phone your 20-year-old “child” multiple times between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. to make sure she’s rolled out of bed for class and eaten some breakfast?
  2. Did your hardworking little psychology major turn in a term paper he’s never laid eyes on—you know, the one you “helped” him with?
  3. Do you lurk on Facebook and MySpace to see if your youngster is hanging out with any bad seeds?
  4. Has the student affairs office toyed with the idea of getting a restraining order against you?
Helicopter parents

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you could be a “helicopter parent.” If you answered “yes” to every one, you’re the dreaded “Blackhawk.”

Dr. Patricia Somers, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration at The University of Texas at Austin, has been working for the past year on a study of this flourishing new parent species. Her research findings will offer insights into how and why levels of parent involvement have changed over the past two decades and suggest interventions for students and parents. Somers will be presenting a paper on the research at a professional conference this fall.

Coined in the early 1990s and made popular by the media, the tag “helicopter parent” refers to a parent who hovers over a child of any age, and “Blackhawks” are extreme examples of this, venturing so far as to engage in unethical behavior to assure the desired outcomes for their child.

“Several cultural shifts over the past 20 years may explain this change in parent behavior,” says Somers. “First and perhaps most obvious are the technological advances that allow people to stay connected 24/7—this includes everything from cell phones to instant messaging, email and ‘nanny cams.’ It’s just extremely easy to cross the line between being involved in a child’s life to being over-involved.

“Second, it’s been suggested that parents’ safety concerns escalated after events such as the Columbine High School shooting and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and they worry more about children being far away from home and feel helpless to protect them. And, third, parents may in some sense be rejecting the less-attentive child-rearing style of their own parents—many of them were latchkey children who don’t want to replicate that same level of removal from their own kids’ lives.”

Patricia Somers
Dr. Patricia Somers

Although the popular media have had a bit of fun at helicopter parents’ expense, and consequently the term has migrated into the mainstream, according to Somers there has been almost no scholarly investigation of the trend. With this study, she and colleagues Clay Coleman, Lauren Cove and Dr. Jim Settle hope to discover just how prevalent the phenomenon is, tease out the specific features of a micromanaging parent and define the circumstances that make “helicoptering” possible.

To gather data, Somers and fellow researchers interviewed U.S. public university and college administrators, faculty, admissions staff and counselors who are on the front lines when the helicopters land.

“One of the first things we discovered,” says Somers, “is that helicoptering is not an exclusively middle- and upper-class phenomenon, as many assume. All income levels are represented to some extent, as well as both genders and every race and ethnicity. We did find, however, some differences between how mothers and fathers hover.”

University experts surveyed by Somers and her colleagues reported that about 60 percent of the helicoptering was by mothers who remain hyper-involved in the social, domestic and academic life of their sons. They also said that fathers tend to intervene in and correct “big picture” issues such as bad grades or refunds, and that they often invoke their real or imagined positions of power, title and support for the university in order to intimidate staff. According to surveyed experts, fathers were much more likely to go directly to senior university administration to solve a problem and employ threats to reach a favorable resolution.

Researchers also concluded that most helicopter parents fall pretty neatly into one of five categories.

Surveyed university experts consistently estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of the parents with whom they deal are 'helopats.'According to Somers, there are the “consumer advocate” parents who view each phase of the college experience as a business transaction and want the most bang for their buck. They push hard to get scholarships or other financial awards for their children and may expect what amounts to an assurance from the university that a degree in X will equal a job as Y, with a salary of Z. To keep tabs on their investment, they may expect staff and administration to overlook a minor technicality called the Family Rights and Privacy Act and produce progress reports on demand. If any aspect of the negotiations or purchase proves unsatisfactory, they feel free to voice their ire and demand their money’s worth.

The “only want what’s best for my child” parents require that their offspring get in the best classes the university offers, gain unfettered access to the most-lauded professors, be assigned to the newest dorm, chosen for the plum internships and nestled in the very best major (inevitably leading to the highest-paying job). Many parents with only one or two children may have had the luxury of starting early in the “quest for the best” and been able to lavish exorbitant amounts of attention on their children at every stage. First was the scramble to get their future engineering major into the swankiest preschool, then calculus tutoring from a MacArthur Fellow and a position as pitcher on the team that will inevitably advance to State—the “gentle guidance” often stretches right through college graduation, the job search and into the “child’s” employment.

The third category of “helopat,” says Somers, includes those who fight for fairness and may feel that universities aren’t giving all students equitable access to resources and opportunities. If only little Jared was allotted enough time in the film production laboratory and able to use cameras as new as those the other kids are using, then he could make an “A,” too. This category is somewhat akin to the “entitlement advocate” parent, who believes that no child should be left behind and stays abreast of state and federal requirements for their child.

At one university, after residence life staff had presented a 'safer sex' program, one female student at the back of the room raised her hand and her cell phone and stated, 'My mom has a question she'd like to ask.'The final, and most familiar category, is the “vicarious college student.” These parents missed out on the extracurricular offerings, socializing, cultural resources and fun when they were in college and want a second chance.

So just how does technology aid and abet all of these hovercraft as they steer their progeny through higher education?

“Anecdotes about parents using cell phones and computers to keep tabs on students range from hilarious to frankly scary,” says Somers. “And it all starts well before college. Elementary school teachers report that some children who have been disciplined call their parents as they walk to the principal’s office and, in some cases, the parents arrive at the office before the student.

“With college students, before they even leave for the university parents can intercept mail containing computer passwords and log-on IDs and then go online to fill out their child’s profile for roommate matching, for example. We’ve heard that more than a few take the initiative to ‘research’ their children’s roommates on Facebook or MySpace, masquerade as their child online and ask for a roommate reassignment. They can register online for the student, follow their child’s academic progress, monitor most of the online communication from the university to the student and compose and answer e-mail.”

If you’re scratching your head at this point and wondering how a 22-year-old who’s not able to address her setbacks, disappointments, goals and progress at the university level is ever going to adjust to a complex job situation and an independent adult life, then you’ve been paying attention. This is a concern of university administrators, faculty and staff who deal with helicopter parents, and it’s a problem Somers hopes to help solve.

According to some large companies, so many parents are showing up with their adult children for job interviews that new corporate programs are being created to educate and accommodate the parents.“More often than not,” says Michael Orr, associate director of admissions at The University of Texas at Austin, “when I’m helping a family through the admissions process I’m dealing almost exclusively with the parents. The student either literally is absent or technically is present but silent and completely uninvolved. The parents have done every bit of the legwork.

“When you work in admissions or student affairs, for example, you may hear from some of these parents weekly, and you quickly learn that they do not want their child dealing with adversity and failure on his or her own. We know that parents have their child’s best interests at heart, but we stress to them that we need to talk to the student, that the student needs to be speaking to his professor himself, resolving a dorm problem and filling out scholarship applications.”

According to Somers, many universities already have started making changes to educate and support helicopter parents and wean students. There are separate orientations for parents and students, newsletters that offer tips for gradually disengaging, lists of suggested reading materials and policies that keep university staff from discussing an issue with a parent unless the student brings it up first.

“My job is to deal with parents,” says Lisa Sparks, director of the university’s Texas Parents’ Association, “and I encounter lots of wonderful, very caring people, including hoverers. When I suggest that they let their child be more independent, they may tell me their son’s just too shy to talk to a professor about a grade, so they need to run interference. Or that it’s imperative that they look over their daughter’s classwork before she hands it in and do online research for a paper she’s writing because she absolutely does not have time to do it herself.

Nationwide, university staff report very high levels of parent involvement in students' academic and social life but note that parents are conspicuously absent at hearings about behavioral infractions. The conclusion? Students may be 'forgetting' to tell parents that they were cited for disorderly conduct or drinking on campus.“The best advice I can give parents is to start planning for this huge change well ahead. When your child gets in high school, gradually give her more responsibility and see how she handles it—if there are problems, you can discuss them. Resist the temptation to step in and take over. Have your son go ahead and tackle some of the issues that are outside his comfort zone. You’re not going to be able to be immersed in every detail of the child’s life until the first day of college and then all of a sudden drop him off at the curb and go on about your affairs. You have to start letting go in increments before that point.”

And how do students feel about the helicopters overhead and underfoot? In a recent survey of 1,700 high schoolers by The College Board and the research firm Art & Science Group, about 95 percent of them said their parents are “involved” or “very involved” in college planning activities. About 60 percent of the surveyed high school students are happy with this degree of participation, and about 30 percent actually want more help.

As she speculates on the trend reversing, Somers muses that many of the reasons for its appearance are not going away any time soon. Life in the modern world can be dangerous and children’s safety will continue to be an issue. Consumerism and the desire for a good deal probably won’t disappear. Technology advances most likely will make “stalking” or intrusion even easier.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, a tired but determined helopat wanders into Bellmont Hall toting a course description catalog, campus map and filthy, over-stuffed backpack. Behind her shuffles Junior with an order of Biggie fries in one hand and a Red Bull in the other, iPod in place and generously turned up loudly enough to entertain everyone within a 20-yard radius.

Mom slumps as she studies the list of office assignments posted on the wall. Only two more professors to talk to, one counselor to plead with, three of Junior’s campus parking tickets to pay and one apartment manager to mollify before she can hit the road and head home to Dallas. Will be nice to sit down, kick back with a cup of tea and just leisurely fill out Junior’s summer internship applications in peace. Probably should check that new girlfriend out too while she’s online.

The Blackhawk has landed.

BY Kay Randall

COLLAGES on banner graphic and within feature: Leslie Ernst

PHOTO of Dr. Somers: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2 April 2007
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