Margaret Nelson Ph.D.

Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times

Why do we worry about helicopter parents?

More news about the negative impact of helicopter parenting....

Posted Jun 28, 2010

Yet another article about the negative impact of so-called helicopter parenting made headlines just two weeks ago; researchers from Keene State College in N.H. reported that college freshmen with helicopter parents (10 percent of the students surveyed) were more dependent, more neurotic, and less open than their peers.

This study fuels the contemporary debate about the children of hovering parents. Some of the concern, of course, is because helicopter parents actually become a nuisance to precisely the people conducting the research on, and writing opinion pieces about, this phenomenon. For example, my article in Inside Higher Ed/USA Today discussing issues related to helicopter parenting in college received comments by professors, higher education administrators, and college counselors; many of these wrote about the irritations of parental interference in children's educational careers

But are scholars right to be so concerned? Helicopter parenting is found predominantly among the elite. And the children of the elite gain admission to, and maneuver successfully through, highly-ranked institutions of higher education. In fact, the National Survey of Student Engagement found that children of helicopter parents reported more satisfactory college experiences and gained more in areas of critical thinking and writing than did those whose parents were less likely to hover.

We might also consider some more sobering facts. Only 50 percent of low-income students enroll in college immediately after high school, in contrast with 80 percent of high-income students; in 2008 14 percent of 18-24 year olds were not working and had no degree beyond high school; and among all groups, but especially among minorities, boys' rates of high school completion and college attendance now significantly trail those of girls. Given these findings, it should come as no surprise to learn that less privileged parents have quite different worries about their adolescent children than their more privileged peers. To take just a few examples from my research, while elite parents worry about whether they have overscheduled their children and whether private schools place too much pressure on them, parents with fewer resources worry about the absence of programs to keep their children occupied and about the quality of the public schools their children attend. In addition, while upper middle class parents are concerned about negative media influences, working class and poor parents worry about keeping their children safe from physical harm.

As we focus attention on the psychological well being of college students raised among the elite, we might do well, then, to think also about the consequences of quite different parenting styles, forged out of necessity, among those who have altogether fewer resources with which to make ends meet.

Margaret K. Nelson is the author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (NYU Press, 2010). She teaches sociology at Middlebury College.