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.