Helicopter Parents Have Landed on Campus. Here’s How to Handle Them

Higher Education

Helicopter Parents Have Landed on Campus. Here’s How to Handle Them

By Marguerite McNeal     Sep 22, 2016

Helicopter Parents Have Landed on Campus. Here’s How to Handle Them

Instructors who flunk a student on an exam can reasonably expect to see an email from a concerned parent every so often. “Helicopter parenting” is so common today that faculty include lines in their syllabuses gently reminding students to take ownership on their work—not defer to their parents to ask the professor why their child performed poorly.

In an age where college students can Skype, email and Snapchat with their families faster than it takes to read this sentence, it’s easy for parents to stay involved in the lives of their children who’ve flown the coop. Constant connectivity also makes it a synch to overstep boundaries when it comes to letting their children become independent adults.

“Helicopter parenting is a habit that parents get into and it’s all well-intentioned,” says Kayla Reed, a doctoral candidate in marriage and family therapy at Florida State University. “It’s easy and quick for them to give them a piece of advice or step in and do it for them.”

Reed and her colleagues at FSU have studied helicopter parenting among college adults and found that parents’ overinvolvement in their children’s college lives can impact how students see themselves and how they handle adverse situations. The researchers’ findings will be published in the October 2016 issue of the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Tech plays middleman

Tech may be able to help students, parents and colleges share information in constructive ways. CampusESP (yes, like sixth sense) is a platform that gives families college-specific news and information, and—with student permission—access to their child’s academic and financial data. The Philadelphia-based company claims it “gives helicopter parents a place to land” and helps college admissions and financial aid departments cut down on the number of phone calls and requests they receive from parents.

“We like to give the example of putting a ton of your money in a 401(k) and then not being able to check on it for a few years,” says Keanan Barbour-March, vice president of product at CampusESP. “To a lot of families, that's what a college education can feel like.”

Founded in 2014, CampusESP graduated from the Dreamit accelerator program in Philadelphia in summer 2016. Six higher-ed institutions, including Delaware Community College and Penn State, use its service, and more than 20,000 parents have registered for it, according to the company.

Once parents create an account, they can view college-specific news, events and deadlines on the school’s CampusESP page or through an email newsletter. They can also connect with a student, which allows them to request access to the student’s academic and financial information, such as midterm grades or financial aid details. While this information is protected under FERPA, the student can grant permission for others to see some or all of it.

College-specific portals give parents the option to request student information.

Barbour-March says the information is especially valuable for first-generation students and their parents, who are unfamiliar with the process and expectations of going to college. Helping first-gen students and their families navigate college shows great potential, but are those really the users who are logging in to check on grades?

Goldilocks-level involvement

There’s a fine line between being a helpful parent and a suffocating one to undergrads. Reed and her colleagues surveyed 461 college students at FSU and asked questions about parental involvement. They also asked students about their perceived mental and physical health and self-efficacy.

Reed and her colleagues noticed a difference between students with so-called helicopter parents and those whose families allowed them more autonomy. The former reported lower levels of self-efficacy, or the ability to handle tough situations, which in turn led to higher levels of anxiety and depression and lower life satisfaction and physical health. In September 2016, The Atlantic reported helicopter parenting can cause binge drinking among students who’ve been raised in tightly controlled “success factories.”

Reed’s findings don’t suggest parents should cut all ties to their students who’ve flown the coop. A hands-off approach is increasingly difficult given how easy it is for families to stay in touch with digital communication. One in five college students are in touch with their parents three or more times a day, and 41 percent are in touch every day, according to research from Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean, authors of “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student.”

There’s a difference between being a helicopter parent and being a supportive one, Reed says. “If a new college student comes to you with a problem, are you trying to tell them what to do, or are you giving them feedback to help them make their own decisions?” She and her team found that students with “autonomous supportive parents”—ones who help their children think for themselves—reported higher life satisfaction, physical health and self efficacy.

CampusESP isn’t the only one playing middleman between families and educators. This week NextTier Education launched a platform to help students, parents and counselors keep tabs on student progress during the application process. And colleges have their own parent portals. (See one from St. Olaf College and Colby College.)

Barbour-March says CampusESP is interested in studying the data from parent interactions across campuses to see how they affect student outcomes like grades, retention and persistence. Is there an optimal amount of parent involvement? “We’re 99 percent of the way there to the product we want to build,” he says. “Now we’re interested in the research side of things—is there a unique formula that helps students be successful?”

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