I am a university professor. Last week, I was in my office when the phone rang. I answered, and after a brief hesitation, a woman responded. She informed me that her daughter had been accepted to the university, and she was calling with some questions about the program I teach in. She quickly acknowledged that her daughter should have been the one making the call, but that she was calling instead, as her daughter was completely overwhelmed by having to choose between two universities. We had a pleasant conversation, at the end of which I encouraged the woman to have her daughter call me herself. I assured her that her daughter's feelings were normal, but that it was important that she support her daughter in making decisions more independently. After all, come August, her daughter will have to be able to navigate campus life on her own. The daughter never called back.
This week, a student came to see me about selecting courses for next semester. She introduced herself, and informed me that she was transferring to the university as a junior from a two-year college. She told me that she had come to see me for an academic plan. Given that I only offer advisement in the program I teach in (as opposed to providing advisement for all of the various degree requirements), I asked her to explain what she meant. She responded by telling me that her mother had told her that she needed an academic plan, although she was not entirely certain of what that meant. That response turned out to be very telling. Shortly thereafter, I referred to the university catalogue, asked her if she had a copy of it, and let her know that it was available online. She responded that she planned to buy a hard copy of the catalogue, as her mother preferred it to the online version. At the end of our conversation, I told the young woman that while she was lucky to have such a supportive parent, she needed to do more to take charge of her university education. The blank look on her face suggested that she really did not know what I was talking about.
The situations described above are increasingly commonplace in higher education. They reflect a twenty-first century phenomenon frequently referred to as helicopter parenting. In short, helicopter parenting describes overly involved parents who hover over their children, ready to swoop in and resolve problems or prevent harm and failure. In all likelihood, the helicopter parent's behavior is motivated by the best of intentions, but from an interpersonal communication perspective, one must pause and ask, what does the helicopter parent's behavior communicate to the young adult child - the emergent adult?
George Herbert Mead's theory of symbolic interactionism1 may provide some answers. The theory suggests that through the acquisition of shared meaning (i.e., socialization), we develop a sense of self; who we are is reflected back to us through social interaction with others (i.e., Cooley's concept of the looking glass self2). That is, the self-concept is cultivated by what is reflected back to us from others through social interaction. The theory further suggests that the meanings we assign have an impact on how we behave, and this is especially true with regard to the meanings we assign to ourselves. At the heart of this theory is the notion that the "self' only emerges in a social context, highlighting the role of communication in the development of an individual's identity.
Another theory that may provide some answers, communication accommodation theory3, also focuses on how identity is negotiated in interaction. It focuses on the ways in which individuals adjust their communication, and suggests that when we communicate with others, we may adjust or accommodate our style of interacting to our interaction partner, though we are often unaware that we are doing so. In other words, one may unconsciously under- or overaccommodate in interaction, and overaccommodation occurs when a communicator overdoes it - over adjusts a behavioral response to another person. A particular type of overaccommodation is dependency overaccommodation4, which involves communicating in a way that puts the other person in a lower status role. Again, this may be done consciously or unconsciously, but ultimately, dependency overaccommodation involves communication that makes one person feel dependent upon the other.
So how do these theories of communication answer the question of what a helicopter parent's behavior communicates to the emergent adult? Helicopter parenting represents a form of dependency overaccommodation, and the behaviors associated with helicopter parenting have an impact on the emergent adult's self-concept and continued identity development. The parenting practices associated with helicopter parenting serve as a warped mirror to the young adult child, reflecting back an image of someone who lacks the requisite skills and abilities to achieve goals independently. For that reason, helicopter parenting has the capacity to disrupt the emergent adult's individuation process (i.e., emotional distancing from family of origin), and thus, the development of psychological competence and self-direction. Although well intentioned, helicopter parents may be causing the very thing they are vigilantly attempting to prevent - harm to their child. To all of you well intentioned helicopter parents out there, consider the wisdom in this slightly altered, old Chinese proverb: give a child a fish and you feed her for a day; teach a child to fish and you feed her for a lifetime.
1 Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2 Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner's
3 Giles, H. (Ed.). (1984). The dynamics of speech accommodation. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 46, 1-55.
4 Zeungler, J. (1991). Accommodation in native-nonnative interactions: Going beyond the “what” to the “why” in second-language research. In H. Giles, J. Coupland, & N. Coupland (Eds.), Contexts of accommodation: Developments in applied sociolinguistics (pp. 223-244). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.