The Perils Of Helicopter Parenting

All colleges want great students. What parents and students want to know is what really constitutes a great? What is it that colleges are looking for and how do they determine what is ‘great ‘enough? Some of the key factors are widely known and well understood: challenging classes, strong grades and strong SAT scores are key to college admission success. Students must achieve strong results in all of these areas in order to make the first cut in the college admissions process. Perhaps this was the start of a parental process that is frequently referred to in high school and college education circles as helicopter parenting or over involved parenting.

Its origins are innocent enough and parents have the best intentions. The thought process goes as follows: Going to a good college is vital to my child’s success. I want my child to be successful. The competition to get into highly selective colleges is very tough; I should help my child in every possible way. Given that research on student success clearly shows that students with involved parents perform better academically in school during years K-12 and attend college at significantly high rates than students with uninvolved parents1, it is no wonder that many parents have become watchful, helpful and sometimes immersed in their children’s academic lives.

So, the question for parents is not whether you should be involved (answer: YES). Rather, parents should ask themselves where should my involvement stop? When do I step back and let my child take over responsibility for his or her own academic life?

In the quest to help their children succeed, some parents cross the line of involvement into territory that ultimately reduces their child’s ability to succeed in their college and post college worlds. The perils of over-parenting are manifested in at least two immediate ways.

First, in terms of college admission, parent’s focus generally tends to be in areas they can exact more control over, specifically studying… or the appearance thereof. Parents wake up students, make up their rooms, feed them and otherwise make it easy to study. In extreme cases, students are exempted from all other responsibilities in order to focus entirely on class and examination grades. Frequently, parents and students believe that all will be well as long as grades are good. BUT colleges have an abundance of bright, hardworking students to choose from. Good grades are not enough – students also need to make time to join a club, volunteer, play sports, or discover a passion. It is how a student spends his or her time beyond their studies that will differentiate them from the many other brilliant students. Because many overinvolved parents can’t control these outside activities as well, they are frequently missing from the student’s profile. Equally as unfortunate is the student with a parent who preselects all of their activities. These students are often stretched thin executing planned activities. They are left with little time or energy to really become involved in activities at the level that would make a difference for admissions. In both cases students lack the level of involvement, care or passion that is vital in their development as young people. This is clearly reflected in their essays, which may lack the compelling detail, maturity, and passion that is needed to help admissions committees give the desired affirmative response.

We have discussed grades, student involvement and passion, but there remains another vital factor that college admissions boards increasingly seek in their potential students. It is GRIT – the ability of a student to withstand a poor grade, a class that shreds their confidence or a bad roommate and bounce back with the courage and resolve to succeed anyway. While hard to measure, grit is easy to identify when it is missing. It is most unfortunate that overinvolved parenting often stunts student development in this area.

So why is grit a factor? Because college is challenging! Most students leave home to live independently for the first time when they begin their undergraduate studies. Many travel to new cities and perhaps even new countries to study. They are matched up with a perfect stranger to live with, they have new teachers, challenging classes and have to decide on their own when and where to eat, make beds, wash laundry and generally create a whole new, hopefully balanced, life for themselves. Imagine how difficult this could be for a student who has never previously made any decisions on his or her own. Many a student falters at the start, but it is the students with grit and know how that are the quickest to succeed. The issues that arise from not having spent significant time failing, recovering and learning how to negotiate the pitfalls of life are highlighted here.

Poor problem identification and weak problem solving skills – Colleges students are expected to behave like adults. They need to recognize their issues or problems and be able to figure out how and where to get help. Colleges offer multiple sources of assistance at varying levels, but students whose parents have solved or eliminated all of their difficulties do not possess effective problem solving skills to perhaps even seek out such advice.

Student dependence – While colleges provide many resources, none of these are a replacement parent. No one will wake your children, make sure that they eat or force them to ask their teacher for clarification.

Students don’t know how to access resources or self-advocate – Professors are ready, willing and waiting…but if your student does not know how to ask questions or ask people what they need, no one will help them.

In summary, while parents certainly have a role in helping their students achieve success, at some point students benefit greatly from being allowed to manage their own lives, make mistakes, fail and come back. It is only by being given early independence that students can learn that the world will not stop spinning and all is not perfect. It is self-reliance that will ultimately allow them to develop the confidence it takes to make decisions and live with the consequences. And it is all of this that grows a child into a student, a daring young adult and finally a successful adult.

1 National Survey of Student Engagement, 2007

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Tess Robinson