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Heliparents & E-Kids
Cell phones and computers have made it easy for college students and their parents to stay in touch, but how much communication is too much?

By Deborah Haar Clark

When Steve Loeb ’79 was at Pomona College, he spoke with his parents every Sunday on the dorm pay phone, often calling collect. Now that his daughter, Katy, is a first-year student at the college, she calls at least several times a week on her cell phone.

“It’s different now,” says Loeb, a Seattle native. “In the late 1970s if someone was talking to their parents every day we would say, ‘What is up with this?’ She may call my wife every day, but for three or four minutes at a time. We’re more in touch with each other’s lives, but I think we are in the norm of the time.”

Sarah “Sally” Elgin ’67 recently came across the letters she wrote to her parents once a week while at Pomona. Today, she and her son, Tom, a Pomona senior, trade weekly e-mails. She also reads his blog—a personal, online journal.

“A lot of kids think their parents don’t read them,” she says. “But we do.” Elgin says she is amazed by what some people will post online, but Tom’s blog doesn’t contain any surprises. Her son says that’s his intention.

“I know it’s a public record so anything I post there has to be appropriate reading for my mom, my future children, my future employers, maybe even my future constituents,” he says.
Junior Hans Hassell says his dad would ask him to e-mail his mom during his first year if too much time had passed without contact. Hassell now e-mails his parents weekly and takes part in conference calls about once a month with his parents and two sisters who are also away at college.

“The longer I have been away from home, the more I value the relationship,” he says of his parents. “You get to see that they do have some wisdom.”

Cell phones, e-mail and the Internet have made it easier for parents to stay connected with their children in college, often smoothing the transition for both parent and child alike. But the advent of instant communication is also blamed for the increasing number of parents who have become overly involved in the lives of their college-aged children, prolonging the passage from childhood to adulthood.

“Everyone has a cell phone,” says Bruch Poch, vice president and dean of admissions. “We see kids walking out of class flipping open their phone. Maybe a kid will come out of a meeting with a counselor upset at something and call mom on the cell phone. A couple minutes later, mom is on the phone with the counselor. The kids used to cry, go home and calm down and then talk to mom. Now there is no buffer.”

Colleges across the country are reporting a dramatic uptick in the number of parents calling with concerns about their children’s health, grades, course schedule, roommates, friendship circle, meal plan and other issues that students in past generations were more likely to handle themselves. Some moms and dads have been dubbed “helicopter parents” for their habit of hovering around their children and swooping in for the rescue at the first sign of trouble.

The involvement has become so commonplace that The College Board, a nonprofit educational association of colleges and universities, published a list of questions to help parents identify whether they are too caught up in their kids’ lives. Among the warning signs, “You are in constant contact with your child,” “You are in constant contact with school administration” and “You make your child’s academic decisions.”

The fact that these overprotective parents are Baby Boomers is not without irony. “Baby boomers are the generation who toppled ‘in loco parentis,’” writes Laurence Smith in Understanding Our Students, published by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

“It is strange that the generation who in their youth fought so hard for their own personal freedom and to liberate themselves of parental control, has tethered their own children with pagers, cell phones and parental notification policies.”

Strange, but not necessarily unwelcome. Today’s college students—known for enjoying close relationships with their parents—not only appreciate their assistance; some expect it. Many were raised by parents who took an intense interest in their lives, shuttling them to lessons and activities long before the “Baby on Board” sign came off the car window, worrying about enrolling them in the “right” primary schools, making sure they had opportunities to excel. It would be odd if these Boomer parents, also recognized for being savvy consumers, backed off now that they are paying thousands of dollars in college tuition.

Katy Loeb ’09 understands that it can be too easy to depend on parents. She has seen that in some of her high school friends attending other colleges. “It is a double-edged sword,” she says of how easy it is to ask for help. “This is definitely the time you are supposed to break away from your family.”

But she thinks the resources offered at Pomona make it easier for students here to stand on their own. “Pomona is unique with the sponsor program and all freshmen being required to live in the dorms and all that,” she says.

“They make it pretty easy to adjust.”

Still, Pomona has not avoided the helicopter parent phenomenon entirely, to the concern of some administrators.

“I think there is a pretty general fear at Pomona and other colleges that this delays the student’s development, delays the maturing process,” says Toni Clark, associate dean of students, who has seen a gradual increase in calls from parents over the past two decades, with a surge in the last two years. “This is a wonderful time for students to learn to do things on their own without serious consequences.”

“Kids should be able to screw up a bit and handle things on their own,” agrees Poch. “I wonder if these kids are going to go into the workforce and their parents will call their employers wanting to know why they didn’t get a raise.”

Poch has seen a definite increase in parental involvement in the admissions process. Twenty years ago, prospective students did all the work to get into a college, he says. Today, parents are making the calls. But he believes that children with overly involved parents are more evident in the applicant pool than in Pomona’s student population.

“The kids who are overmanaged don’t always look as good as the parents think they look,” he says. “It doesn’t look like the kids do anything on their own.”

Senior Associate Dean of Campus Life Frank Bedoya says his office also is getting more contact from parents.

They have always called for things like a student’s address or the name of a local bakery that will send over a birthday cake, but now they also call for details like the dimensions of their child’s dorm room and what amenities are included, he says.

“For many of our students they are an only child or they are going away from home for the first time and they are going far away,” says Bedoya. “I think for many parents involvement is the connection they can have with their children. They feel they are part of the college experience by knowing when the semester ends or what is in their dorm room.”

Less constructive are the parents who demand the college fix a perceived problem—such as a roommate—without first encouraging their child to handle the situation. “Parents seem to feel a need to fight the battles for their students,” says Bedoya. “But we are hearing from the parent before we hear from the student. Then we contact the student who will say it is not a problem.”

Pomona junior Brian Hardesty, a dorm resident adviser, says he, too, has run across parents with lofty ideas about college services. “Parents have asked about room service multiple times during orientation,” says Hardesty. “We don’t do room service, much to their disappointment.”

Still, not everyone at Pomona is seeing a swell in parental contact. Chemistry Professor Cynthia Selassie says she’s getting fewer calls from parents this year than she has in the past. But she also thinks the issues that drive parents to pick up the phone tend to be beyond the purview of professors.

“I don’t think parents usually are calling about academic issues,” she says. “They are more likely to call about issues that are not something the faculty can deal with.”

Hassell says he knows his parents have called the administration to weigh in on campus issues, such as the proposal by a student organization to create a gender-neutral restroom in Smith Campus Center. But he wouldn’t call them helicopter parents. Yes, his mom keeps up on campus issues by reading the student newspapers published at all the schools her children attend. But he appreciates that his parents take an interest in his life while respecting his decisions.

“I think it is great,” he says. “They are wonderfully supportive and respectful. They are watching carefully. Helicopter parents implies a lot more noise and wind around you. They kind of watch from a distance. They give advice but they are not trying to live my life for me.”

How Do You Know if You’re a Helicopter Parent?

1. You are in constant contact with your child. If you dial your child’s number every day or multiple times each day, you are hovering. And if your child calls home at any sign of stress or trouble, you are likely overinvolved.

2. You are in constant contact with school administration. One of the main goals of going to college is for kids to grow into independent adults who can direct their own affairs. If you’re e-mailing or phoning school officials on a regular basis to resolve your child’s conflicts, then you are overmanaging.

3. You make your child’s academic decisions. If you are choosing courses, majors and/or a career path for your child, you are too involved. Giving advice or input is certainly acceptable and warranted, but being in control of these types of decisions is a sure sign of hovering.

4. You feel bad about yourself if your child does not do well. If you consider schooling an experience involving both parent and child, then you probably view your child’s accomplishments—or lack thereof—as a reflection on you. If you feel like a failure when your child fails, you are hovering.

Plan for College “Are You a Helicopter Parent?” Copyright © 2006 collegeboard.com. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. www.collegeboard.com.

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