It’s a bit like asking strangers about bigotry or sexism. Bring up over-protective, over-involved parents of college students, and everybody knows someone else who acts like that – but not me, buster. In a small, online poll last year, 25 percent of some 400 students told career service company Experience Inc. that their parents were “overly involved to the point that their involvement was either annoying or embarrassing.” Thirty-eight percent said their parents had either called into or physically attended meetings with academic advisers, and 31 percent reported that their parents had called professors to complain about a grade. On the other hand, 65 percent said they still ask their parents for academic and career advice. How to know if you’ve crossed the line from constructive coach to intrusive controller? Here are some questions to ponder, from Miami educators and collegeboard.com.
1. Are you in constant contact with your child? If you dial your child once or more every day, we can hear your helicopter blades whirring from here. Let your child call you. If your child calls home at the first sign of stress, you’re probably too involved. Students need to learn to negotiate, share, and accept responsibility on their own.
2. Do you contact school administration often? If you’re e-mailing or phoning university officials regularly to fix your child’s problems, then you’re micromanaging. Avoid roommate, social, and grading disputes. “Students should be able to handle any problems where there is not a dramatic power difference,” says Richard Nault, Miami’s vice president for student affairs. “A roommate issue, for instance. But if a student feels he or she is being sexually harassed by a faculty member, that is a power imbalance, and administrators need to be involved.”
3. Do you make your child’s academic decisions? If you’re picking courses and majors, you’re too close. Even worse? Researching or writing a paper for your child. “Students will follow their own passion,” says Joe Cox ’61, professor of art and associate provost at Miami. “If they are forced into another field by their parents, I have seen students self-destruct just to show their parents.”
4. Do you control all financial matters? Experts advise working together to plan a budget and taking a coaching role in money matters. One useful tool is a debit card, so the student has discretion in spending choices, but the parents can set limits on funds available. At Miami, MUlaa is a debit account through the Office of Student Housing and Meal Plan Services that allows students to use their Miami ID to buy everything from books to snacks. And no worries about credit card debt.
5. Do you feel bad about yourself if your child doesn’t succeed? Helicopter parents tend to base their own worth on their children’s achievement. According to collegeboard.com, one study released by the Society for Research in Child Development in Atlanta states that parents who judge their self-worth by their children’s accomplishments report sadness, negative self-image, and diminished contentment with life in general. Also on collegeboard.com, Peter Stearns, provost of George Mason University, reports parents’ anxiety and dissatisfaction with life have markedly increased during the past 20 years because of overinvolvement in their children’s lives. Such a strong focus on the children can fray a marriage too. “Statistically, after the last sibling graduates from college, one-half of the parents will divorce,” Cox says.
6. Do you know the difference between helpful involvement and unproductive hovering? If a child has experienced emotional or physical trauma, step in. Also, if you notice disturbing behavior or personality changes. “When it comes to depression, we never resent a call from the parents,” Nault says. “They might say, ‘I’m worried, I’m observing these symptoms.’ In the past, we were dismissive of parents. We were almost on the edge of arrogance as a university, that we knew how to raise adolescents and that intrusive, uninformed parents were pushing to be involved in an area that should be the exclusive domain of the university. Parents have wisdom we don’t have.” Parents, after all, know their child better than anyone else.