Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Can Parents Help College Students Too Much?

Stop circling the helicopters. Let your kids GO.

As school starts this week in our part of the country, three images of adolescence are banging together in my brain.

First are the kids - bleery with sleep and looking like great, landlocked turtles - meandering down the sidewalks of our small town towards their first days in middle school. 

Second are the late adolescents - early adults - arriving with suitcases, boxes, and parents in tow to begin their college careers.  Orientation begins in just over an hour, and the little diners in town have been crowded with families since early morning.

Third are the incredibly mature - and sometimes wildly adolescent - young men and women I see on my video screen, interviewed about their experiences in Iraq, getting ready to listen to the President talking about how the first part of their long mission is over.

All week, I've been trying to get a hold of why - WHY - only the college students seem hovered over by parents.

Let me start out by saying a few things up front.

  • Historically, it's not unusual for parents to drop their kids off at college, helping them lug their belongings into crowded dorm rooms, shaking hands with the roommates and other sheepish parents, and buying that forgotten hotpot or potted plant.  That's what families do - help each other when someone needs a hand.
  • I think that's a good thing.  My mentor, Urie Bronfenbrenner, has suggested that at times of major transition - like starting nursery school, entering college, beginning a job, or going to war - having supportive others with you is one of the best ways to help the transitioning person adjust.  Development is HARD WORK.  Every new context brings you new demands and new challenges.  That's what forces you to grow.  Support during that transition helps us make it over the hump.  One of Urie's favorite phrases - development is optimized in the maximum of challenge and the maximum of support - sums it up.  Parents can really help their kids cope with college.  And the more different college is from the world they left at home, the more important that help can be.

But I can't help but feeling that there's something just WRONG about some of these hovering college families.

It began last week.  I started to see new first year students wandering around campus with one - sometimes two - parents in tow.  First of all, that was kind of weird.  Our week long first year orientation starts today.  Why were they here a week early?  Well, it turns out that the parents had come to campus a week early with their kids, staying in hotels at a not inconsiderable expense, so their kids could adjust to the town in order to prepare for their orientation.  What was really striking about these families was the dynamic.  Family after family walked by, with kids dutifully listening and parents talking and talking and talking.  Often kids looked happy and friendly.  Obviously they felt cared for.  But they were almost never the ones looking anxious or asking questions.  They were just listening.

I gather this is not unusual.  Last week, the New York Times ran a story in which they said many websites and chat rooms for the parents of college students (what is with THAT anyway?) were wondering how long they should stay in a hotel in the area to be there 'just in case' their kids needed them. The piece went on to say that one of the major goals of the parent orientation that goes on parallel to student orientation is to strip the parents off of the kids and help them to say goodbye.

As a parent, I have three things to say to hovering parents:

  • I know - know - deep in my visceral parent bones how scary, melancholy, sweet, and exciting it is to see the child you have nurtured, peeked at in ultrasound, nursed, guided through play dates, fought with over homework, and cheered for in football go off - alone - into what is undeniably the beginning of their truly adult life. 
  • But you need to trust yourself and trust them.  If you've done your job - and probably even if you haven't - they will cope just fine.  Being a successful parent means that you have helped them to be competent, autonomous people.  They have skills.  They will do okay.
  • They're going to screw up.  EVERYONE screws up.  They will probably not sleep enough.  They may not schedule their time well and mess up on an assignment or fail a test.  Since the vast majority of kids in high school drink and engage in sexual activity you probably would rather they didn't, they'll probably do that in college too.  They may fall in love and be disappointed.  That's okay.  You can't stop that from happening.  That's how we learn and grow.  You need to have faith that they will pick themselves up - maybe with a little help from a friend or parent or professor - and keep moving forward. 

As an advisor, professor, and adolescent researcher, I have five possibly more important things to say.

  • As a growth experience, the college context provides three unique opportunities: an intense community of same-age peers, a demanding opportunity to learn new skills, and an opportunity to bond with unrelated adults who will help young adults figure out who they want to be, where they want to go, and how to get there. 
  • For the developing person to engage in that experience, parents need to step back.  You didn't run onto the soccer field to help them block that tough shot.  You can't do this for them either.  But you can cheer and give advice (when asked) and listen to them tell you how happy, disappointed, or excited they are.
  • MIRROR them.  One of the most important things you can do as a parent WHO IS MAKING THE TRANSITION TO BEING THE PARENT OF AN ADULT is to listen to what they're telling you and reflect their emotions back to them.  They're excited?  You should be too.  They're upset they didn't do well on a test?  Reflect that disappointment, even as you cheer them up. 
  • When they're disappointed or upset, ask what happened.  I bet they know why they failed.  And if they say it's because the professor is unfair and is grading too hard, you might suggest that they:
    • can't control the professor, but can control how they approach the task
    • talk to the professor and try to understand what their expectations are
    • ask for help - and USE THE HELP OFFERED
  • Today's colleges are FULL of people whose job it is to help students when they stumble: deans, advisors, mental health professionals, learning specialists, writing centers . . .  Those services are one of the reasons that college has gotten so expensive.  If your child needs help, one of the best things you can do for them is to help them figure out which services are available and how they can use them.  When a student is overwhelmed, sometimes they don't know how to ask for help.  YOU can help by helping them find out who, on campus, can help them HELP THEMSELVES.

NOTE: Your job is to empower your college student to succeed.  Not to tell them how to succeed.  Not to succeed for them.  People feel successful when they achieve something - not when someone else gives it to them on a platter.  The harder the task they overcome, the greater the triumpth.  Let them feel that.

One of the biggest changes in life at residential colleges in the amount of contact that kids have with their parents via cell phones.  According to the Times - and my own experience - it isn't unusual for kids to call or text their parents several times a day. 

This past summer, undergraduate Gizem Iskeneroglu and I completed some analyses of early adolescents' desire for privacy and willingness to share information with their parents.  These kids were also making a major transition - from elementary to middle school.  These are some of the same kids that I saw wandering off to school - alone and without their parents - this morning downtown.

Our findings suggested two things about the parents of kids who wanted privacy and were pushing their parents away.

  • First, as we expected, kids whose parents were intrusive, pushy, and degrading wanted more privacy and would stonewall or lie to keep parents out of their business.
  • Second - and very surprising to me - parents who were warm and supportive also had kids who wanted a lot of privacy.  Interestingly, these kids were happy to share information they considered to be within the legitimate domain of parental authority (homework, chores, video games, etc).  These were good, pretty obedient kids.  They weren't secretive.  But they didn't want to share information about their personal life - their friends, likes and dislikes, or feelings. All the things I, as a caring, supportive, psychologist parent would love to hear about.

I asked my very private 22 year old about these findings, and his opinion confirmed my own intuitions.  In establishing a sense of autonomy and separateness from very caring parents, it can help to keep things private so you can have ownership over them - and yourself.  This reminds me - again - of some of the wisdom shared by Urie Bronfenbrenner: the trick with children is to engage them and then run away just fast enough that they catch you. This applies to college students too.

  • They have a cell phone.  Let them call you.  They know where you are.
  • And if you're dying to know - and they haven't called you yet - wait a few days, then call.  But text first.  They're probably busy and, much as they'd love to share their new life with you, need to find time in their new life to really talk.

Finally, there's homesickness.  Most people feel homesick when they go to college.  Attachment theory tells us the most important functions parents serve is as a secure base.  The secure part is obvious - when we are scared or challenged, we retreat to people who will protect us.  We run home to mama.  College is an exciting, but sometimes overwhelming experience and can evoke that need for security.  Being there for kids is important.  The less obvious part of attachment theory is how parents function as a secure base.  Kids who feel loved and protected by parents explore MORE than other kids.  They reach out.  They take risks.  Why?  Because they have a safety net (and their hypothalamus isn't hyperactivated by stress, but that's another post). They know they can explore because they have a place to retreat to.  And by the time they are adolescents and young adults, that's not just because they can drive home or drop you a text.  It's because they hold that security from you in their hearts.

It is natural for kids to feel homesick.  If you are a source of security for them, they will call or text home when they do.  But your job isn't to rush in and rescue them - it's not to be that one best friend they're still relying on from home.  Some students, especially shy ones, respond to loneliness by calling home and hiding in their dorm rooms.  This is not a good strategy.  Help them reach out to their peers.  Parents can be supportive by helping students think about how they can make new friends - by joining organizations, forming a study group, getting a tutor, studying in the lounge instead of the library.  New students are surrounded by OTHER new students - most of them lonely and looking for new friends too.  By hovering too close, you can keep them from seeing the opportunities for growth in the place where they are now.  And when you call or text and it turns out that they're too busy to talk right now, take that as a good sign.

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For results of a nationally representative study looking at the association between 'helicopter parents' and student outcomes, click here and go to page 25.  This study (the report of study, actually) is interesting in that it shows students with very involved parents who intervene have more 'deep learning' experiences (e.g., writing, discussions with faculty, etc.), although they get lower grades.  This is actually quite consistent with findings from most studies of students at all levels who receive extremely high levels of social support. 

What I find interesting about this study is the very high, stable percentage of students who say they are in contact with their mothers 'often' or 'very often' (86%).  Often is, of course, a relative term.  I would have said I talked to my mom often in college, because we talked once a week.  My niece would say the same thing about her mom, because they talk a few times a day.  As a methodologist, I would interpret students saying they often speak to family as indicating they feel that their family is there for them whenever they need them - always a good thing.

Interpretting these findings more closely, however, it makes me wonder if the positive findings (students with involved parents have deeper  learning) are as much due to the benefits of involvement as they are to the problems of disengagement.  If 86% of students say they often talk to their mothers, that 14% who do not are fairly unusual, and probably unusually distant from family.  In addition, as the report points out, it may be that students whose parents intervene are doing so because the student is having serious academic difficulties - for example, mental health issues, school failure, or a learning disability that requires serious or specialized intervention to help the student succeed.  This hypothesis can't be tested or assessed in the data as presented. 

Another explanation - also offered by the study - is that students whose parents are very involved and do step in are comfortable with talking to adults, expect support from adults and to be treated as intelligent, capable people, and so seek out opportunities to work with and talk to faculty, to take hard courses and challenge themselves, and to get very involved in their own education.  Many of my very favorite and most engaged students are very creative and intellgient, but wind up getting mediocre grades.  They're comfortable with risk and value intrinsic learning more than extrinsic grades.  And that could be the result of very involved 'helicopter' parenting as well.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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An excellent thing to think about: A long talk about expectations, support, and finances.  Check out this link from the NY Times.

 

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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