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.