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The Pressure from Parents

Overinvolved parents may be hurting the psychological development of college students.

Behind their back they're called helicopter parents because they hover over their children and make a lot of noise rescuing them whenever difficulty arises. They have no qualms about intervening even on behalf of 25-year-old offspring. They might protest what they deem an unfair grade or demand to know what is being said in counseling sessions. At the very least, helicopter parents want to know what the university is doing to help their children thrive. If something occurs that they don't like, they're apt to dial the university president directly.

On a good day, institutions see them as "activist parents." Whether they like them or not, schools are struggling to accommodate them.

"They want to be involved in the life of the student," observes Kevin Kruger, assistant executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the organization of student affairs officers in higher education. "Their involvement is accentuated when a kid comes to college with a mental health problem. They want to create a successful environment for their child, and they pressure the institution to respond. They call the president's office or the dean of students. And they want answers."

Some experts believe that they contribute to the development of psychological problems in their children by overprotecting them and keeping them from learning how to cope with adversity. Such intrusiveness breeds anxiety because it contains the implicit message that "You are fragile and need continuing help." "More than one campus counselor has said of a student, ‘the treatment of choice is a parentectomy,'" reports Stephen Caulfield, chairman of the Chickering Group, a leading provider of health insurance to colleges.

In nudging colleges to assume increasing responsibility as guardians of their children—and frustrated by confidentiality clauses that often keep colleges from informing them what is going on—today's parents have created a supremely ironic position for themselves. The overinvolved parents of 2004 were, a generation ago, the very rebels who challenged the authority of the university to serve as surrogate parents. The campus uprisings they orchestrated in the late 1960s overturned the doctrine of in loco parent as administrators ceded control over the moral and social development of students, who were no longer considered children unable to make decisions for themselves.

However unpleasant on the receiving end, the push by today's parents on the universities may, in the long haul, be a healthy development. Its ultimate goal is to make the care and feeding of children more of a community responsibility. Social critics argue that it was always too much of a burden to place all the responsibility for children on the individual family—and the inability of families to shoulder that burden by themselves is reflected in today's high rates of psychological distress among students.