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Robin Marantz Henig

Do Parents of Young Adults Swoop Too Much?

"Helicopter parents" and their antics can make for amusing reading

Stories about helicopter parents usually make my skin crawl, because they're written as though the excesses of a few can stand in for the childrearing habits of an entire generation. These tales always end up with some variation of the complaint that today's twentysomethings "got trophies just for showing up."

This article by Tamar Lewin in The New York Times this past weekend had the "trophies just for showing up" line -- in this case, it came from Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. "This is a generation that was not allowed to skin their knees," he said, predictably. "They got awards and applause for everything they did, even if it was being the most improved, or the best trombone player born April 5."

But what I did like about Lewin's interview with Levine was its list of "helicopter parents" transgressions -- a list that was positively delicious. Which is why we read these stories anyway, isn't it? Not for some insight into the way things are, but for that little frisson of delight we get from seeing how other parents manage to seriously screw up?

The descriptions come from Levine's latest book (written with Diane R. Dean), "Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today's College Students." Here are the stories he said he'd heard from deans of student affairs across the country:

  • The mother who called to report that her daughter was caught in an elevator, even though the elevator service repair number was posted right there in the elevator (the daughter never called them, she only called Mom).
  • The mother who thought that roommate matches should take into account roommate PARENT matches, too, “to make sure the other mother is of the same culture I am so we can support each other.”
  • The student who talked to the dean for a long time about the pros and cons of joining a fraternity, and then pulled out his cellphone and said, "Now tell my mom."
  • The mother who called the dean about her son's dispute with another student who said her son was too busy to meet with the dean about it, but “she would do so on his behalf.”
  • The mother who called 15 times in a single afternoon, finally reaching the college president, to report that her son had a problem with his wireless connection.

You gotta love these stories, right? But just because they exist -- even if they exist in greater numbers than they used to, which seems to be the case -- doesn't mean that all forty- or fifty-something parents are ruining their twenty-something kids and rendering them unable to stand up for themselves and live their own lives. There have been overbearing parents for generations (think back to stereotypes of quintessential stage mothers, for instance, like Mama Rose in Gypsy), and usually the kids twist free of the apron strings and become competent, independent, fully-formed adults.