Journal Entry 6 – Problem Statement, Purpose Significance, and Research Questions

Problem Statement

Well-meaning but overbearing parents who support and advocate for their university student’s success may actually impede the student’s resilience and ability to solve problems for themselves.

Purpose and Significance

My personal stake in this phenomenon is two-fold.  Firstly, as a new parent myself I sympathize with hovering parents and find it interesting that this issue has become so important.  My daughter is only two years old, and already I have experienced conflicting impulses about when to let go and let her make, and learn from, her own mistakes.  I have no doubt that as she grows older and her decisions become more consequential, that this impulse will only become more confusing for me.  Secondly, I regularly experience helicopter parenting first-hand from an administrator’s perspective.  As an administrator, I am mindful of my role as a university official and of the university’s view of students as adults, as well as the role of college in helping students develop emotionally and learn to solve their own problems.  And yet, I see instances where the university reinforces the parent-child connection; from considering parents when determining financial aid eligibility or in determine residence status for tuition purposes, to the parent sessions available during freshman orientation activities.

It concerns me that hovering parents are becoming so common, with one broad study indicating that 38% of first-year college students intervene “sometimes” or “frequently” in their child’s academic career  (“National Survey of Student Engagement,” 2007, p. 25), and yet there exists very little consensus about the impact it has on the student – or even what, precisely, the phenomena is.  To better define this problem, I will not just be looking at the impact of “parental involvement” as a broad phenomenon, but rather I will define it as suggested by Settle & Somers (2010), as an array of types: fairness, consumer advocate, safety patrol, vicarious college student, and toxic parent (p. 20).  Since the students are the axis on which hovering parents pivot, I will be conducting a study to analyze the phenomenon from the student perspective.

In better understanding the phenomena of helicopter parenting, university officials will be able to develop programs to meet the student need for community while fostering independence, while also leveraging those parents who still hover, to the advantage of the students, institution, administrators and faculty.  Once the problem is understood, clear boundaries may be set to specify what is and isn’t appropriate.  Equally, I hope to give a voice to the students who are experiencing the phenomenon and understand what it is they need and want from their community as it relates to their university education.  To put it succinctly, the purpose of this study is to understand and better define the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, understand the various consequences of parental hovering, and to find actionable data to promote student growth.

Research Questions

How do helicopter parents affect first-year university students?

A. What is the impact of helicopter parents on university student resilience?
B. How do helicopter parents affect a student’s transition to adulthood?
C. What aspects of helicopter parenting are most harmful or helpful to university students?

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Journal Entry 5 – A New Introduction

As a university administrator who frequently meets with students in academic distress, I am very familiar with those who arrive at my office with a hovering mom or dad.  Indeed, college campuses teem with anecdotal stories of these so-called “helicopter” parents, and the profile of the phenomenon is on the rise.  So named because “like helicopters, they hover closely overhead” (Kennedy, 2009, p. 19), these parents have become a staple of popular culture, with high profile stories run by CNN, NPR, Time magazine, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times (Aucoin, 2009; Belkin, 2007; Belkin, 2010; Fortin, 2008; Gibbs, 2009; Stewart, 2007). The origin of the term “helicopter parent” can be traced back to authors Charles Fay and Foster Cline (Settle & Somers, 2010), and was further defined in a Newsweek article in 1991 as “a nosy grown-up who’s always hovering around.  Quick to offer a teacher unwanted help” (Zeman, 1991).  But even with all of this attention, the impact of hovering parents among university studens is unsettled, with research on the topic bearing mixed results.

A Time magazine cover story about the issue detailed how “college deans described freshman as “crispies,” who arrived at college already burned out, and “teacups,” who seemed ready to break at the tiniest stress” (Gibbs, 2009).  Indeed, there is some evidence that helicopter parenting is related to an increasing fragility in college students: “College, it seems, is where the fragility factor is now making its greatest mark.  It’s where intellectual and developmental tracks converge as the emotional training wheels come off” (Marano, 2004).  Furthermore, Marano (2004) suggests a correlation between parental hovering and an increase in depression and binge drinking among college students, and a blurring of the lines between adolescence and adulthood.  Rettner (2010) suggests “having so-called “helicopter parents” [is] associated with being dependent, neurotic, and less open, with a slew of personality traits that are generally thought of as undesirable.”

It’s easy to vilify hovering parents.  The tendency to do so is only exacerbated by the strain that a hovering parent can place on an understaffed administrative office or beleaguered instructor, and by how this phenomena represents a cultural shift away from the traditional view of independent adulthood.  But there is evidence that hovering parents may indeed be beneficial to their college-aged children.  “Some researchers have begun to argue that late adolescence and young adulthood are such minefields today – emotional, social, sexual, logistical, psychological – that there are valid reasons for parents to remain deeply involved in their children’s lives even after the kids are, technically speaking, adults” (Aucoin, 2009). Moreover, some research suggests that students want more participation in their college lives from their parents, who are increasingly being recognized as trusted advisers; for instance, a 2007 survey suggested that “nearly a quarter of college freshman said that their parents had “too little” involvement in choosing their college courses and activities” (Hoover, 2008). The National Survey of Student Engagement (2007) found that students with involved parents had “higher levels of engagement and more frequent use of deep learning activities,” and that they experienced “greater gains on a host of desired college outcomes, and greater satisfaction with the college experience” (p. 25).

It is likely that the issue with determining the effects of helicopter parenting is one of semantics.  The term is used to describe a wide array of phenomena, which can include solicited and unsolicited involvement, ethical and unethical behavior, interactions that occur between the parent and child and the parent and the college, and involve a wide array of communications systems and technologies.  Colavecchio-Van Sickler (2006) uses the term “black-hawk” parents to describe those who do unethical things for their children.  Settle & Somers (2010) define the phenomena further, separating helicopter parents into several categories: fairness, consumer advocate, safety patrol, vicarious college student, and toxic parent (p. 20).  Parents are stakeholders in their child’s education and often invest a great deal of time and money into the process (Kennedy, 2009); expecting them to step-back and be hands-off when their child is having problems is perhaps unreasonable.

Despite the differing views on the impact of helicopter parenting, what seems clear is that it is becoming increasingly common.  In 2007, the National Survey of Student Engagement asked questions of its 4000 student respondents related to the student-parent relationship.  Among other things, the report found that seven out of ten students communicated “very often” with their parents throughout the academic year.  Among first-year students, 13% reported that their parents “frequently” intervened in their academic career, and 25% percent reported that they intervened “sometimes” (2007, p. 25).  That 38% of first-year college students report at least some parental intervention in their academic career indicates that this has become a very important issue, and is something that needs to be better understood.   That there is so much disagreement about the impact of hovering parents also suggests that a deeper look at the phenomenon is necessary.

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Journal Entry 4 – The Helicopter Generation?

I had an interesting conversation with my Dad about the concept of parental involvement and helicopter parenting; we looked it as a generational phenomenon. My Dad, solidly in the post-WWII Boomer generation, pointed out that the attitudes about parenting have shifted significantly since he was young. When he turned 18, he was expected to move out and make a way for himself. And he did – he joined the Air Force and was off on his own. I am a late Gen-Xer, and when I turned 18 twenty-something years later I was in college and still very dependent on my parents. Even I, who was very independent (I had held a steady, full-time job since turning 16), moved temporarily back in with my parents twice more over in the subsequent years. My 2-year old is a millennial – what aspects of my relationship with her will influence the degree that I hover when she is in college? Is this type of thing cyclical? How can this factor into my research?

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Journal Entry 3 – The Social Trap of Helicopter Parenting

Telling a mom or dad that they are making a parenting mistake is not going to get you very far.  An administrator who tries to explain the many downfalls of helicopter parenting to a hovering parent is likely to be met with a classic string of dismissive “Yeah, but…” responses – that is, if they aren’t punched in the nose. And really, the decision to step in and advocate for a student seems to be a rational one.  The alternative in many cases can mean dramatic consequences for the student – both financial and academic – and the real-world experience that can be brought to the table by a wizened parent tends to be extremely effective.  However, this seemingly rational decision to hover over a college-going child because of the perception that the child cannot effectively deal with such problems one their own, is a classic example of what in Game Theory is called a “Social Trap.”

Specifically, this is a type of “time-delay” trap, where “there is opposition between the highly motivating short-run reward or punishment…and the long-run consequences” (Platt, 1973, p. 643).  Examples of time-delay social traps can be found in cigarette smoking and drinking, where the short-term narcotic benefits trump the long-term risks to one’s health; or in global warming, where the attractiveness of driving a large, comfortable, SUV, eclipses the long-term consequences of high emissions and gas consumption; or even in saving for Christmas or retirement, where the short-term consequences of not spending money psychologically outweigh the long-term benefit of having money later on when you know that you’ll need it.

The mechanisms for helicopter parenting vary by situation but can include advocacy for an exception to be made for a student who has made a procedural error (e.g., did not file a form on time) or is in danger of having action taken due to academic non-performance; I have even seen parents intercede because they do not like the ethnicity of the dorm-mate with which their child has been paired; and I know of professors that have had to deflect angry parents over a difficult Organic Chemistry test.  Gone are the students who threaten Dean’s with their lawyer parents, replaced with the actual lawyer parents threatening legal action.  In these cases, the student can reap clear short-term benefits: an exception is made, their dorm-mate is changed, or the instructor lets them retake the test.  The college education of one’s child is an investment and investments should be protected, right?

However there are two problems with the seemingly rational decision to hover over and advocate for one’s college-going child.  The first is that there are long-term consequences that go along with these short-term benefits that may not be immediately apparent, and, when considered, change the balance of the equation significantly.  The second is that the desire to step in and intercede on behalf of one’s child necessarily implies that one does not believe one’s child capable of handling the situation and advocating for his or herself.  These two consequences are connected.

The long-term consequences can include the stunting of the student’s ability to deal with problems and advocate for themselves.  The entire point of college is to learn to be independent and how to think – so what happens when an outside party interrupts this process?  The bureaucracy of college is an excellent primer for the professional world beyond, where, presumably, mom and dad will not be there to help.  Absent this growth, the student runs the risk of emerging immature, unable to handle failure, and undeveloped.  The second component of these consequences is the inherent assumption that the students are incapable of supporting themselves or advocating on their own behalf.  Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is the question, how do they get practice with mom and dad ever close at hand, ready to solve their problems?  This assumption, that kids can’t do it for themselves, is self-fulfilling.

The social trap of helicopter parenting is nuanced and not immediately obvious to the parents or students.  Platt (1973) suggests that in order to counter the impact of a time-delay trap, it is useful to move the delay up so that the disparate consequences are more closely in-line (for example, a cigarette tax) with the short-term benefits.  While it is not feasible or wise for universities to create artificial obstacles to encourage students to advocate for and support themselves, arranging for parent orientations, requiring parents income in calculating financial aid eligibility, and poor-support structures on campus all are counterproductive for helping students grow and become independently resilient.

– DG

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Journal Entry 2 – Good or Bad?

The profile of the issue of helicopter parenting has been on the rise in recent years.  Time magazine published a cover story about it in 2009 and there has been coverage on CNN, NPR, and in the New York TimesUrbandictionary.com, in an entry seemingly written by a beleaguered college administrator, defines the phenomena thusly:

“The bane of the dean’s existence. The parent who hovers and flaps his wings while the kid lives in his shadow. Particularly prevalent at high-priced colleges, where parents feel obliged (or entitled) to intervene on issues down to the candlepower of the lightbulbs [sic]” (“Helicopter Parents,” accessed on July 5, 2011).

While that level of vitriol is likely extraordinary, it is notable that this issue has become so widely recognized among administrators as being a problem (that is noted on urban dictionary is also telling).  But while it may indeed place a burden on college officers (to which such parents would likely respond, “deal with it, we pay you good money”), the question remains: is it good for the student?  Indeed, one of my doctoral colleagues raised this question after my initial post.  Surely, having parents involved in the lives of their children — annoying as it may be — should have some positive benefit on this student?  And there appears to be evidence that there is a positive side to helicopter parenting.

“There is mounting evidence that parents should take more rather than less interest in their children’s education. In a review of research studies, the Harvard Family Research Project found that teens whose parents play an active role do better in school and are more likely to enroll in college” (http://www.collegeboard.com/parents/plan/getting-ready/155044.html, Accessed on July 5, 2011).

However, these benefits belie the true perils of helicopter parenting: the treatment of children as a commodity, the pressure under which such hovering can place on a student, and an a students resulting inability to handle failure and face problems with resiliency.  Time magazine describes the phenomenon as a type of product development, with the outcome at university being a type of report card on the parent:

“Parents demanded that nursery schools offer Mandarin, since it’s never too soon to prepare for the competition of a global economy. High school teachers received irate text messages from parents protesting an exam grade before class was even over; college deans described freshmen as “crispies,” who arrived at college already burned out, and “teacups,” who seemed ready to break at the tiniest stress” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1940697,00.html, Accessed on July 5, 2011).

While popular journalism seems divided, scholarly literature is largely silent on this matter.  I mean to investigate what the impact is, positive or negative, and perhaps build a foundation for further research.   It is my belief that while there may be positive aspects to hyper-parenting, it can cause significant problems.  The reason that I am focusing on the negative with this study is because, for the students who are the beneficiaries (victims?) of helicopter parents, I believe that the ability to succeed in the so-called “adult world” of university and the job-market (and there of bleeding into the latter) is diminished.  Such success is dependent on these individuals’ resilience and ability to solve problems for themselves, and hovering parents impede the development and fostering of these traits.

Here is another quote from Time describing the mantra of the newly-emerging “free-range” parenting movement (in reaction to helicopter parenting):

“Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they’ll fly higher. [The parents are] often the ones who hold them down” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1940697,00.html, Accessed on July 5, 2011).

-DG

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Journal Entry 1 – Description and Problem Statement

Hi All, this is my first journal entry.  My name is Dave Garrison and I am an EdD student at Drexel University writing my dissertation.  I also am an administrator at UC Davis, which is where I will likely be conducting my research.  I am married and have a beautiful two-year old, who will likely be three when I finish with this…

I am planning on studying the phenomenon of “helicopter” parenting.  Called that because these parents “hover” over their children at what many regard as a stage in life where the “children” should be independent – while at university (see also, “Velcro” parents).  This phenomena traditionally takes the form of advocacy and support that is, I believe, inappropriate and detrimental to the development of the now-adult child.  It is something that interests me not only because of my professional perception, but also because, being a relatively new parent myself, the notion of “over-parenting” is one that I have struggled with.

It is frustrating for me, as an administrator, when I meet with a student who brings their mom or dad along.  Typically, if I am meeting with a student they have had significant academic trouble, and parental oversight at that age – absent any disabilities that preclude the student from being able to manage their life – tends to in and of itself indicate dysfunction.  It is my belief that students with these hyper-involved parents do not tend to have the resilience, independence, and ability to manage failure that is necessary for success at university.  Even if and when they do graduate, such a success is not entirely their own and can lead to future confidence issues and dysfunction in the post-college workforce.

Here is the problem statement that I am working with right now:
Well-meaning but overbearing parents who support and advocate for their university student’s success may actually impede the student’s resilience and ability to solve problems for themselves.

Here is an alternative problem statement that I was considering:
Well-meaning but overbearing parents who support and advocate for their university student’s success create an undue administrative burden on university faculty and administrators.

Here is another, more open-ended problem statement that would likely require me to go with a broad, grounded-theory study:
Explore the phenomena of helicopter parenting.

Lastly, here is a collection of research questions that I have brainstormed and will be narrowing down significantly:

  • What are the patterns of parental involvement among university students?
  • How does parental involvement impact university student…
    • Success? Self-esteem? Resilience?
  • How does university student parental involvement impact…
    • Academic freedom? University administration?
  • What are the themes of parental advocacy?
  • What are the legal trends of institutional responsibility for university students?
  • How do university administrators and faculty perceive the impact of parental advocacy and support?

‘Til next time, DG

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