Helicopter Parents

For several years I have heard the term “helicopter parents” batted around in various social situations where I have found myself. The term has never been uttered in my presence unaccompanied by anything less than its derogatory implications. For a long time I really wasn’t sure what the term meant, but after working more than a dozen or so open house events at Southern New Hampshire University, and now in my role as Director of the University Honors Program, I have come to see how sadly true the term really is.

Ever since I started teaching at SNHU six years ago I have been a constant and willing participant at open house events, which we hold twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring. For most of that time I was there to represent the English major in the hopes of recruiting high school students to our program. This is an unfortunate but necessary part of the life of twenty-first century professors, especially those of us who teach the most impractical majors such as English. In any case, I do like attending these events and I do like talking with prospective majors about the future.

With that said, I have found that in almost every case where I have discussed the possibilities offered by majoring in English I have been forced to “make my case” to the parents and not the prospective students. This is truly a sad state of affairs! I understand that in most cases parents are paying the cost of their child’s education, and I am heartened by the fact that these parents are taking more than just a passing interest in that education and the educational process as a whole. However, it’s the prospective students I should be talking to and not the parents. In short, the conversation has, generally speaking, been one-sided, with the prospective student remaining silent through most of it. On too many occasions I have been told “my son or daughter has a question about your major.” Okay, then why hasn’t your son or daughter asked me? And moreover, why is he or she standing behind you with the look of a deer in headlights on his or her face? In some cases the child (because that is what the prospective student has been forced to remain) is either too shy to ask a question on his or her own, or the parent, usually the mother, will not allow that child to get a word in.

There have been several times when I have pointedly attempted to address the child by looking directly into his or her eyes. In nearly every case the parent has actually stepped in front of the child and intercepted what it was I was trying to ask or tell her. I have always felt sorry for that child because he or she is already being placed in a position that is significantly behind those prospective students who have the courage to push the parent out of the way and ask a question on his or her own. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the parents who are interested in the education and future of their children, but they are doing their children no favors by speaking for them. In fact, what they are doing is severely limiting the possibilities for future success.

I have just completed my first year as the Director of the University Honors Program at SNHU, and in most cases the students I have dealt with have all been self-motivated and self-confident. Yet, the new crop of students I expect in the fall is leaving me with some reservations. Since January I have received more than a dozen phone calls from parents who are speaking on behalf of their children. Most of the time they have questions about financial aid and the scholarship awarded to our University Honors students. Sometimes the questions surround curriculum and student life. Most disturbing is when I have parents call or email me stating that their child is concerned that the workload for the University Honors Program will be too much, mostly because Johnny or Susie is on the (insert sport here) team and needs to attend practice and away games. This is frightening on so many different levels. I understand the importance of playing competitive sports at the university level, and the practical implications of the scholarships that go along with it. But, the emphasis should always be on academics and not sports. Realistically, someone who plays sports at my university will never make it to the professional level. This is not a criticism of my university, but a realistic observation.

Last week I had a parent contact me stressing a concern he had over the financial aid package his daughter would receive if she entered into the University Honors Program. My first thought was why didn’t she call herself? He could have coached her and even stood by the phone, but the responsibility for the call falls to the daughter and NOT the parent. To make matters worse, the deadline for applications, which is clearly stated, has already passed by a few weeks. The parent’s call was so long winded that his name and phone number were cut off. He did manage to get his first name across and that of his daughter’s. His name was “George,” and his daughter’s name was “Georgina.” Well, if that alone is not telling, then I don’t know what is. The daughter has no identity other than being the daughter of “George.” I am convinced that this particular parent will also accompany his daughter to her first real job interview, perhaps even going to so far as to sleep in her bed on her honeymoon.

I try to remember all of this because I have two young children of my own, and I do not want to send them out into the world unprepared. Yes, I want to protect them and look out for their best interests, but I do not want them to exist in my or my wife’s shadow. As parents we have an obligation to instruct our children on how to exist on their own, with out support, but from a distance. The result of helicopter parents will be a generation of woefully underprepared children who will have no idea how to make their way through the real world. The proof of this already exists in the culture of entitlement now running through our society.

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