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The Parent Trap

"Helicopter parents" find difficult to separate from their kids when they head to college. Illustration: Mindy McEachran

Ah, fall. Time for another cadre of bright-eyed frosh to leave the shelter of their parents’ homes, venture off to college and take their first truly independent steps toward adulthood.

For decades, the rules of this rite of passage seemed to be carved in stone: Young men and women moved forward; parents stayed behind. In the early 1990s, however, the old rules began to change. A new generation of parents emerged. They were well informed and hands-on. They attended PTA meetings and soccer games and proctored school events. They were so accustomed to being involved in every aspect of their children’s lives that, even as their daughters and sons prepared for college, many parents found it impossible to let go.

They became known as helicopter parents: well-intentioned guardians who micromanaged the college application process then swooped onto campus during orientation and hovered in a four-year holding pattern until their children received degrees.

“We want more than just sending our kids off to Neverneverland,” says Jenny Crowe-Innes, whose son, Brian Innes, is a junior finance major at DU. “We want to know our children are safe and are in a good learning environment.”

Unable to cut the ties

Because they are a relatively new phenomenon, tracing the origin of helicopter parents isn’t difficult. What is surprising is the significant role educators had in their birth.

“We created the paradigm,” says DU Orientation Program Director Lisa Matye Edwards. “We’re coming from an age where parental involvement was seen as a factor for student success. That’s been the national mantra in public education for the past decade or two.”

Educators intended parental involvement to be viewed as a critical element during grades K-12, but many parents find it difficult to shift their behavioral gears when students graduate from high school. And although helicopter parents act in what they believe to be students’ best interest, many fail to realize that excessive involvement can be unnerving to those who matter most.

“My mom used to e-mail me all the time, every day probably. She called a lot just to see how I was doing, and she’d write me letters,” recalls Kate Lotz, BA ’04. “She wanted to make sure I knew she was still there supporting me, but I didn’t want to talk to her every day.”

Lotz is now pursuing a graduate degree in international studies at DU, but her mother still hasn’t let go.

“It sometimes reaches the point where it’s a little too much,” Lotz says. “I have to say, ‘Mom, you need to back off and let me make my own decisions. I’m 22.'”

Of course, having students pine for freedom isn’t the worst that can happen. Much more serious are the long-term dependencies that arise when parents continue to solve students’ problems even after college is under way.

“We hover over our children and scoop them to safety before they fall and skin a knee,” says Jo Calhoun, associate provost for academic resources. “We are loving, involved parents — to a fault. We don’t allow our children to discover and build their own competencies, to bump against a difficulty and surmount it, to enjoy a sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence. I really worry that our children will graduate from college without the skills to fend for themselves in the world.”

Sophomore environmental science major Erin Fleming agrees.

“I was in a class — a required class — with someone who was totally nonchalant. The student said a parent had donated a lot of money to the University and would take care of the grade,” Fleming says. (Calhoun points out that no matter how much a parent may donate, they cannot influence a student’s grades.)

“Sometimes parents make problems go away, but this places students in a bad position,” Fleming adds. “They think parents can always make problems go away. Students have to realize that a chapter of their life has closed.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported that colleges and universities around the country are facing a growing onslaught from parents determined to control students’ academic experiences. Some institutions are bombarded with letters, calls and e-mails from concerned or even irate parents; some receive threats of lawsuits if students are denied admittance or receive a bad grade. Some schools have even had to resort to deploying creative diversions, such as the University of Vermont’s “parent bouncers,” to give students breathing spacing during orientation and registration.

Unlike many of its counterparts, DU has, for the most part, managed to avoid extreme confrontations. That success is due to a concerted effort by the Office of Admission and the Office of Student Life to create well-defined roles for parents while students live and study on campus.

“Our typical challenge is when parents call to do students’ business because the students are ‘too busy’ to deal with it themselves,” Calhoun says.

Over the years, DU parents have submitted letters of appeal when students were suspended (students must initiate appeals), demanded room changes when conflicts arose between roommates (students must resolve such matters with the housing department), complained because they couldn’t access their kids’ medical records (health records are private) and asked the University to explain why their children never returned phone calls.

When major conflicts do arise, they often occur because parents assume that paying DU’s tuition entitles them to a premier level of customer service. In one such case, a father complained because University staff wouldn’t call his son’s room to ensure he woke up in time for class.

“He said, ‘It’s hard for me to believe that, given the problems you know my son is having getting to class and given how much you say you care about your students, someone couldn’t, just one time, pick up the phone and call his room to make sure he got himself out of bed and to his class on time,'” Calhoun recalls. “I explained that, to be successful at DU or any other college, getting to class was something the student needed to be able to do for himself. But I’m sure, from the father’s viewpoint, that was a very unsatisfactory response.”

As difficult as it is to step back, both Calhoun and Matye Edwards advise parents to fight the urge to overprotect.

“Students will have bad days, and they’ll call home upset. Your first instinct will be to fix the problem, but you aren’t helping if you do,” Matye Edwards says. “It’s like the story of the butterfly and the cocoon. If you help the butterfly out, it will never be strong enough to fly. You have to understand and appreciate the benefits of the challenges students are facing.”

Preparing parents for letting go

Keeping most DU parents happy means establishing rapport early — often before the admission process is even complete.

“We receive hundreds of letters and calls from parents each year, and we try to be as accommodating as we can,” says Todd Rinehart, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment. “Parents think about value and outcomes. They want to know how DU can prepare their daughters or sons for the real world better than Georgetown or Stanford.”

Rinehart’s office helps by providing detailed, current data on persistence rates (the number of students who return after their first year) and graduation rates, the type of jobs DU graduates get, the type of industries they join and the names of companies that hire DU graduates and interns.

Once students are accepted and enroll, the University’s Parents Program takes the lead. Founded 11 years ago, the program provides immediate assistance when parents need help, produces print and electronic newsletters for parents, facilitates the operation of the Parents Association and the Parents Association Council, and each year sponsors almost two dozen send-off parties around the country to allow new students and parents to meet DU staff, current students and their parents in a relaxed environment.

“Our charge is to encourage positive communication between parents and the university,” says Parents Program Director Laura Stevens.

DU’s comprehensive approach makes a difference to parents like Shelley Bundy King, attd. 1973-76. Although she’s an alumna, Bundy King didn’t give DU an automatic green light when her daughter, Bentley, began researching colleges. Ultimately, it was the University’s overall package that sold the family.

“Everything about DU — the information provided, the quality of the tour, the quality of the academic departments, everything — was superior,” Bundy King says. “If you go to the DU Web site, there’s so much information it’s unbelievable. You can learn how to stay informed, how to keep on top of what your children are doing, how to get involved. There are so many things for parents to do at DU, and we’re going to take advantage of them all.”

Not surprisingly, students think parents programs are a good idea. “A lot of parents aren’t sure how to handle college,” Lotz says. “They need any support they can get.”

Once parents feel secure, they’re more willing to let the maturation process begin. Crowe-Innes has been able to rein in her inclination to micro-manage her son because DU is “a very fine, supportive school.” Today, Crowe-Innes advises other parents to read DU’s newsletters, attend events and get involved with the Parents Program.

“Back off a little and let students drive the interaction,” she says. “Let them call you.”

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