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.
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:
As an advisor, professor, and adolescent researcher, I have five possibly more important things to say.
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.
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.
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.
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
An excellent thing to think about: A long talk about expectations, support, and finances. Check out this link from the NY Times.