The news, a week or so ago, about a twenty-one-year-old college student named Aubrey Island who successfully petitioned the court and got a restraining order against her “helicopter” parents briefly ignited message boards on the Internet. The parents’ behavior, it should be said, was so over-the-top (putting spyware on her cell and computer, showing up on her college campus unannounced, allegedly asking her to sleep with Skype on so they could monitor whether she was actually asleep in bed and alone) that it was, on one level, amazing that anyone defended them, but people did. A lot of people were sympathetic to the parents’ demand after the restraining order: the return of the $66,000 they’d invested in their only child’s education. (In case you missed it, they stopped paying her tuition her junior year because of her recalcitrance to accede to their demands; the university stepped in and gave her a scholarship.)
If this is a cautionary tale, a few things stand out. First, that the judge —contradicting the cultural stance on “emerging adulthood” as it applies to this generation — ruled on the basis of Aubrey’s status as an adult which left her free to decide how to act without her parents’ interference. Second, that the adjective “helicopter” passed muster in almost every account when, clearly, there was something else going on. These parents weren’t just hovering; they were authoritarian, controlling, and desperately enmeshed. None of these descriptors is specifically about the Millennial group, nor do they originate with cell phones and other forms of technology which are usually cited as facilitating the helicopter, lawnmower, stealth, or umbrella parents. (I’m borrowing here from Arthur Levine’s Generation on A Tightrope. While the helicopter parent hovers, the next two “roll over” everything to defend their cubs, while the “stealth” parents “swoop in to protect” their young and umbrella parents “shield their property.”) Memoirs from other generations, such as Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments or Kathryn Harrison’s twisted and disturbing The Mother Knot, make it clear that controlling or stifling parents (or unloving ones) are old news. But are there more of them?
What may be specific to this generation is the monetary investment parents have made in their children which, in turn, yields a proprietary point of view. The tendency to see children as the lumps of clay given to parents to mold isn’t just mirrored in books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother but in the proprietary stance reflected in how many parents hire tutors and outside help to buff and polish their kids’ essays and the increasing number of calls made to college officials all over country about issues large and small. (Arthur Levine’s grocery list of some of them is astounding.) In that sense, Aubrey Ireland’s parents aren’t extraordinary at all.
This isn’t new news, either; in 2007, a Michigan State research brief on recruitment on campus noted that 41% of parents picked up materials for their child at an on-campus job fair. You might be nodding at this point, wondering what’s wrong with that, although you should be asking yourself what was the kid doing that was actually more important. The slippery slope, though, is indicated by how “being helpful” becomes not okay very quickly: 31% of parents submitted a resumé on their child’s behalf, often without his or her knowledge; 26% actually pitched their kid to a recruiter; 15% complained to the company if their kid wasn’t hired; 12% arranged the interview; 9% negotiated the salary; and a stunning —and rather unbelievable—4% went to the interview!!!!
That brings me back the Irelands' demand for the return of their 66, 000 post-tax dollars. Isn’t that what other parents are doing —protecting their investment by calling the dean, hounding the recruiters, paying for their kids’ apartments or inviting them to come back home? Aubrey’s parents may have been extreme in one sense but they’re not really in another. It’s easy to see what’s not okay with their stance but what about the rest of us? What about the parent who says her daughter is plenty independent because they only talk three times a week usually, except when there’s stress and then it’s four or five times a day? What about the mother who routinely calls her twenty-six-year-old daughter’s boyfriend and then her friends if her daughter doesn’t return a call in an hour? What about the parents who, after their daughter told them she was too busy to go on a family vacation, went ahead and simply bought her a ticket to Paris anyway? What to say to the mother who’s “working on setting boundaries” with her son because her husband is concerned about how often he’s calling home, not to mention coming home, but then says that “she’ll cut him slack because of emerging adulthood.” Will he ever “emerge” if she keeps doing things for him?
One Millennial, Aubrey Ireland’s age, emails me that “This just feels so familiar. It’s the classic parents’ guilt trip from ‘I brought you into this world’ to ‘Who paid for X?’ to make their kids feel lousy if they try to say something about their parents being too controlling. It does look like a lot of parents want to live vicariously through their children.”
Is it time to rename this kind of parenting? Is the word “helicopter” too benign and are we too used to it as a fact of life in the twenty-first century? Why aren’t we asking what constant whirring of those blades is doing to our kids’ sense of self as they work on becoming adults? At what point do the words “I’ll do it for you” become a shorthand for “You can’t do it for yourself because you’re not competent enough?” Are we just afraid that if we let our kids go it alone, they’ll end up failing?
Isn’t it time to take a look at the line between a parent’s “helpfulness” and a young adult’s “helplessness?” You tell me.
Levine, Arthur and Diane R. Dean. Generation on a Tightrope: a Portrait of Today’s College Student. New York: Jossey-Bass, 2012.