Helicopter Parents

University administrators increasingly find themselves in the position of interacting with over-involved parents about a range of issues their children are facing—from roommate problems to academic disappointments and health concerns.
January 31, 2007

In the fall of 1972, Jeff Howard and his father drove the family's blue Chevrolet Impala to the Minneapolis airport where the younger Howard boarded a plane bound for the Raleigh-Durham Airport. Upon landing, he caught a ride to Durham with Steve Evans, one of his freshman roommates, and moved into a first-floor triple in Kilgo Quad. Four years later, Howard's parents set foot on the Duke campus for the first time—for Jeff's graduation.

"I called home every Sunday afternoon and occasionally sent a letter, but that was the extent of my communication with my family," says Howard, an investment counselor who lives in Winston-Salem. "And that was the norm." Now the father of a Duke sophomore, Cameron Howard '09, and a recent alumna, Sally Howard '06, Howard is well aware that times have changed. He and his wife, Carson Dowd Howard '76, who are active on a number of university committees, visit the Duke campus frequently. During a break between sessions of an alumni-leadership conference this fall, Howard is interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. It's Cameron, calling to see what the dinner plans are for later that evening.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Illustration by Steve Brodner

"We almost joke about it now," he says, hanging up after confirming a meeting time and place. "It seems that we are here almost every weekend."

Geographical proximity has afforded the Howards the kind of convenient access to campus, and to their daughters' evolving undergraduate experiences, that most parents only dream of. Even with regular campus visits, though, the Howards communicate with one another electronically four or five times a week, and sometimes more often. Although most families can't hop in the car for a day trip to Duke, the increase in frequency of communication between parents and their college-age children, made easier by cell phones and computers, is not unusual—in fact, it appears to be a hallmark of this generation of parents.

A recent survey by the College Parents of America found that 74 percent of parents spoke with their children two to three times a week, and a third did so at least once a day; 90 percent used cell phones to communicate, and 58 percent used e-mail. Students chatting away on cell phones between classes are just as likely to be seeking course-selection advice from mom or relationship advice from dad as planning the evening's activities with friends.

While students of earlier generations may have reveled in their independence, current students—through the wonders of communications technology and sociocultural factors specific to their generation—are constantly in touch with their parents. Today's young adults, dubbed Millennials by authors Neil Howe and William Strauss in their seminal book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, have grown up mastering rapidly changing technology and constant multitasking. For them, a world without cell phones or Internet access is unimaginable. With family and friends only a few buttons or keystrokes away, telephoning or e-mailing—if only to discuss something as mundane as the weather—is such an ingrained habit, it's almost second nature.

Howe and Strauss, who have also written about baby boomers and other generational patterns throughout American history, note that Millennials are one of the most protected populations in memory. From bicycle helmets and mandatory child-safety seats to play dates and constant supervision, Millennials are accustomed to overweening safety and security, scheduling and scrutiny. In Millennials Rising, the authors observe that this generation has grown up under the close eye of parents, teachers, coaches, and child-care providers, rarely left to their own devices for hours at a time. For those parents who, as children, spent whole weekends away from home, riding bikes in packs, or exploring nearby woods, the thought of not knowing what their nine-year-old is doing for eight hours at a stretch is unfathomable today.

One advantage of such persistent oversight of a child's activities is that the majority of Millennials report feeling very close to their parents; that's particularly true of mothers and daughters. Ironically, many of the baby boomers who rebelled not only against their parents but also against the notion of in loco parentis when they were in college are now actively engaged in their Millennial children's day-to-day lives into the college years and beyond—and expect the colleges to provide the same sort of oversight and attention to their children's needs that they do.

Particularly in competitive higher-education settings like Duke's, today's students have been nurtured by families that put a premium on academic excellence and high achievement. With so much invested in their children's success, parents are increasingly attentive to how university staff members and administrators contribute to the continued success and well-being of their child, as well. As a consequence, university administrators increasingly find themselves in the position of interacting with parents about a range of issues their students are facing—from housing and roommate problems to academic disappointments and health concerns.

With nearly three decades of experience working with Duke students and their parents, Sue Wasiolek '76, M.H.A.'78, LL.M. '93 has seen a wide range of parent-child relationships. She compares her own generation's rejection of in loco parentis to today's student-parent dynamic. "It's ironic that the students who wanted to eliminate any kind of parental role that the university played—making them sign in and out of dorms, for example—have become parents who demand to be involved in their children's lives," she says.

But there's a fine line between reasonable parental concern and overbearing interference, she says. The term "helicopter parents" is used to describe those moms and dads who constantly hover over their child, ready to swoop in whenever there's a perceived crisis. The phrase is so widely used among college administrators that one Duke official, upon seeing a Duke Life Flight helicopter circling the Bryan Center plaza this fall, joked to a colleague that it surely contained Duke parents checking on their children.

What concerns observers of the helicopter-parent phenomenon—including everyone from residence-hall advisers and student-affairs staff members to counseling and mental-health care providers, deans, and faculty members—is the inhibitive impact such continual supervision has on young adults at a time when they should be making the transition to adulthood.

"Young adults need lots of opportunities to negotiate obstacles and even experience failure, recover from failure, and learn from it," says Kathy Hollingsworth, director of Duke's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). "What we're seeing here at CAPS are emerging adults whose parents are, on the whole, very caring, educated people. But in many cases these students have been treated as gifted children almost since birth. They've been sent to competitive schools and special summer camps and after-school language programs. As a result, they tend to be high achievers and perfectionists who, consciously or not, link love and acceptance to academic excellence. They feel like 'trophy kids.'

"So when they get a bad grade or experience a setback, some fall apart. They not only turn against themselves, they feel as though they've failed everyone around them."

Healthy boundaries: Jeff and Carson Howard, standing, have been able to maintain close ties to daughter Cameron while encouraging her independence

Healthy boundaries: Jeff and Carson Howard, standing, have been able to maintain close ties to daughter Cameron while encouraging her independence. Megan Morr

Last February, Hollingsworth distributed a report titled "Duke University Students: Mental and Physical Health Challenges and Needs" to her colleagues in student affairs. Co-authored with William Purdy, executive director of the university's student health center and a specialist in pediatric and adolescent medicine, the report notes that many Duke students report that they are held to extraordinarily high standards by teachers and "intrusive parents who have trouble letting go."

Last year, Hollingsworth and her staff met with 1,400 new clients, 53 percent of them undergraduates; 47 percent, graduate and professional students. The top problems reported in counseling sessions were schoolwork and grades, but those stated concerns are deceptive, Hollingsworth says. "When a person's identity is wrapped up in being a gifted student who makes good grades, they will try to hold that together at all costs. We see straight-A students who have serious eating disorders and are cutting themselves. Grades are the last thing to go."

Illustration by Steve Brodner

By law, parents are not allowed access to the academic or health records of their children once they reach the age of eighteen. Hollingsworth says she often reassures concerned parents that "they need to trust us to assist students in making decisions for themselves. Today's parents are often reluctant to trust this process, however, so it may be a no-win situation when you've got an anxious parent on the phone and a student who is not in imminent danger and who doesn't want the parent involved."

Reassuring anxious parents is not always easy. On a breezy Tuesday morning after Labor Day weekend, Wasiolek prepared to meet with a father who had flown to campus to intercede on behalf of his daughter. The young woman's roommate, it seems, liked to party. A lot. In a moment of frustration, the young woman had vented about the situation to her dad.

"Often when a student has a disappointment or a setback, they immediately call their parents on the cell phone," says Wasiolek. "They don't wait to cool down, or until they've resolved the problem themselves. So the parent gets this high-pitched, anxious voice on the other end, and, like any good parent, they want to help. And that is precisely what they do—they get on the phone to someone at Duke or send an e-mail, and now the student is out of the picture."

In fact, that's exactly what had happened in this particular case. By the time the father's plane landed, a number of Wasiolek's student-affairs colleagues had already worked with the two roommates to help them hash things out, improve communication, and set mutually agreed upon dorm-room rules. "The young woman had asked her father to go back home," she says, "but since he had come all this way, he insisted on meeting with us."

Wasiolek says that although she has no statistics to back her up, she thinks the majority of parents who cross the line into "helicopter parent" territory have college and often post-baccalaureate degrees; parents of only children often need additional hand-holding. (Parents of first-generation college students tend to be the most hands-off.)

Faculty members are not immune from the interference of helicopter parents—and the children who rely on them. At the start of her public-policy journalism seminar a few years ago, Susan Tifft '73 reviewed the syllabus, emphasizing the quantity of thoughtful writing required, particularly for the final assignment. One young woman raised her hand and asked whether Tifft would be willing to read drafts of the final paper in advance and provide feedback, the better to ensure an excellent grade. When Tifft declined, on the grounds that it would create an unfair advantage, the young woman nonchalantly told her it didn't really matter because she routinely has her mother read and critique her homework anyway.

"I was dumbfounded," says Tifft, Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the practice of journalism and public-policy studies and a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. "I opened up the discussion to the class and asked if this was a common practice. Many students told me that their parents were very involved with helping them write papers."

Tifft reminded her students that they all had signed the university's honor code, which prohibits, among other forms of cheating, unauthorized collaboration with others on tests and assignments. When the students tried to argue that getting parents to edit and evaluate homework didn't constitute collaboration, Tifft was shocked—and adamant.

"This stops," she told them. "I'm grading you, not your mother."

Since then, Tifft says, she's found it necessary to be explicit with students that disinterested help, such as that provided through Duke's writing studio, is perfectly acceptable, but parental co-authorship is not.

Stephen Bryan, an associate dean of students and the director of judicial affairs, says he's not surprised to hear that some families don't grasp the questionable ethics of having parents run interference for their children. Bryan manages the disciplinary process for a wide range of cases, including plagiarism, disorderly conduct, and drug and alcohol violations.

In an era when parents scramble to put their newborns' names on the waiting lists of prestigious preschools, getting to the next level of achievement becomes an endless pursuit for parent and child alike, Bryan says.

"There's an attitude that you have to get into a good prep school so you can go to a good college. Once you're in a good college, you have to prepare to go to the top medical school or law school. It's almost as if failure is not an option."

When an academic or conduct violation brings students to Bryan's attention, the most common reaction from families is attempting to minimize the detrimental impact of the behavior on any long-range plans, rather than focusing on the transgression itself, he says. "This is the time when students should be testing their wings, flying from the nest to see if they can make it," he says. "And it's to be expected that some of them will stumble. That's normal. What I tell parents is that their child is not a bad person, that they made a mistake, and that we want to work with them to learn from that mistake."

Unfortunately, he says, there has been a rise in the number of cases in which students fail to be accountable for their actions. During a recent plagiarism case, the parents initially insisted that all communication from the university go through them, rather than the student, Bryan says. "If parents have concerns about the way that an incident will be handled or questions about a process, I encourage them to call. But I want to deal directly with the student. I have had to write e-mails or tell parents over the phone that my job is to communicate directly with their son or daughter."

Learning to let go: CAPS director Hollingsworth  tells anxious parents to "trust us to assist students in making decisions for themselves"

Learning to let go: CAPS director Hollingsworth tells anxious parents to "trust us to assist students in making decisions for themselves". Les Todd

Now in his sixth year at Duke, Ryan Lombardi, associate dean of students, is a key liaison between students and parents. With his easygoing manner and ability to put crises in perspective, Lombardi is adept at determining when a situation needs immediate attention and when it can be handled with a phone conversation, a reassuring e-mail message, or a face-to-face meeting.

About five years ago, he recalls, a mother repeatedly telephoned to complain about the lack of cleanliness in her child's dormitory bathroom. Lombardi spearheaded meetings with dorm residents, including the student himself, the housekeeping crew, and the residence-life staff on call, but no one could figure out what she was talking about.

Another mother e-mailed dozens of times before bringing her son to matriculate this fall, skeptically questioning his office's ability to handle orientation smoothly. Lombardi sought her out at orientation to see whether the university had delivered on its promises; she grudgingly admitted that it had.

In response to the growing demand for two-way communication between parents and their children's schools, colleges and universities are spending considerable time and money to establish or expand existing parent programs. At West Virginia University (WVU), a "Just for Parents" section of the school's website invites visitors to join the Mountaineer Parents Club, an initiative launched to provide opportunities for increased parental involvement in the life of the WVU community. Services include Web links to a range of services, among them, monthly "Heartwarmer from Home" gift packages that can be ordered online for delivery to students' dorm rooms; a network of clubs around the country that sponsor faculty speakers and send-off parties for new students; and a toll-free number that connects callers to a full-time "parent advocate" who answers questions and responds to complaints. Since it was established in 1995, more than 30,000 calls have been logged, and the parent advocate works closely with the president's office.

On the national landscape, organizations such as Administrators Promoting Parental Involvement, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the American College Personnel Association have either been launched or have expanded programming in response to parental omnipresence in college life. For $79 a year, current and future college parents can join the College Parents of America, which boasts, among other things, a full-time staff in Washington to ensure that "parents are informed about and included in legislative and regulatory debates impacting higher education."

Illustration by Steve Brodner

A national survey conducted in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Parent Program showed that not only are more institutions offering parent services, but also they are expanding the scope of programming. Like WVU, nearly 79 percent of survey respondents have a link for parents on the front page of the school's website. Nearly all of the colleges surveyed offered both a parent-orientation program and family/parent weekends. Other services and activities included newsletters, parents' handbooks, fundraising councils, and parent advisory boards. From admissions materials for prospective applicants to post-graduation alumni and career services, the variety and amount of information designed for parents, as well as students, is rapidly proliferating.

In addition to specific sections on various websites—including admissions, student affairs, judicial affairs, financial aid, and academic advising—Duke offers a special listserv that parents can sign up for to receive periodic e-mail messages from Lombardi's office. (Given the mutable nature of e-mail accounts, a printed parent newsletter is also mailed to parents' home addresses twice a year.)

During orientation for first-year students, there is a concurrent schedule of events for parents, from conversations with deans and student-affairs leaders to an interfaith assembly that showcases religious and spiritual opportunities for students. There's also a special presentation, "A Year in the Life of a First-Year Student," that includes skits capturing common scenarios in a freshman's first days, weeks, and months.

In one, a student and her parents go to pick up her student-orientation packet. The volunteer asks the student a number of questions—where she's from, what high school she attended, what activities she's interested in—only to have the parents interrupt and answer every question. The student looks embarrassed and annoyed. As the volunteer begins to accompany the student and her parents to the student's dorm room, the student looks at the audience and says, "I'm so glad I'm the one going to school here." Other skits focus on themes ranging from homesickness and drinking to academic exploration and experimenting with new clothing and lifestyles.

To provide a more formal structure for dialogues with families, Lombardi helped launch the Duke Parents Advisory Council (DPAC) in the fall of 2005. Comprising thirteen volunteers—two parent representatives from each class and five at-large members—the group meets on campus twice a year and serves as a sounding board for various policy issues and student-life programming. Prospective DPAC participants apply for the one-year appointment in the spring.

DPAC member Jane Ross says the meetings with professionals in student affairs, residential life, career services, and counseling and psychological services helped her understand the support systems in place for her son, Christian Wakeman '07. Ross, an educational consultant from Southport, Connecticut, says she thinks it's important to have students learn independence and self-reliance. Yet when she first brought Christian to campus, she wasn't certain where to turn if she had specific questions.

"There is a lot of helpful information out there, and people are very helpful once you contact them, but it's not always obvious how to access them." Now, she says, she has a deeper appreciation for the support systems Duke has in place for students, including a highly skilled residential-life staff; a dean on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week; and dedicated student-health professionals.

For families like the Howards, whose Duke connection is enhanced by their daughters' own undergraduate experiences, setting clear limits on whether and when to intervene on their children's behalf and working in tandem with university administrators has helped them strike a healthy balance between maintaining close-knit ties to their girls and learning how to let go. Active volunteers in their daughters' high school, Forsyth Country Day, the Howards have witnessed the unpleasantness of over-involved parents.

"I've seen so many helicopter parents—for example, an insistent father lobbying for more playing time on the soccer field for his child," says Jeff Howard. "That's something we would just never do. In my day, if there was some kind of problem or tension between a child and a teacher, there was the immediate assumption that it was [the student's] fault." He says he and Carson have also never intervened with problems their daughters might encounter with their peers. "That's their world. As a parent you can try to provide guidance, but interacting with difficult peers is something that they—and all of us for that matter—have to face on a daily basis."

Lombardi recalls his own parents' views on letting go of him and his siblings. "My father told me that he and my mother felt no greater pride than when the time came when they knew they wouldn't have to worry about us anymore, that their job was done and we could handle ourselves as adults. And that really is the end goal here.

"Our mission is to help young people become independent, responsible adults who are prepared to go out in the world," he continues. "So one of the things I tell parents to reassure them is that they have worked hard for eighteen years, and if they've done their job as a parent, the rest will work itself out."