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,
“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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
Plan for College “Are You a Helicopter Parent?” Copyright © 2006
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