Barry Glassner is president of Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, where he also teaches sociology. Morton Schapiro is president of Northwestern University in Illinois, where he also teaches economics.
When the presidents of colleges and universities talk privately at this time of year, a popular topic is how to handle “helicopter parents.” We muse over what to say during new-student orientation sessions to dissuade parents from hovering over their children for the next four years — interfering with the maturation their children need, while driving us a bit crazy in the process.
The usual plan of attack is to lecture parents on the importance of letting go. “Help your children unpack,” parents are told. “Kiss them goodbye, and ask them to text you a couple of times per week.”
Having found that approach both unrealistic and ineffective, the two of us have come to take quite a different tack. We encourage the parents of freshmen to stay closely connected with their children. We know that some parents make inappropriate demands on professors, student-services staff and college officials while failing to disconnect from their children sufficiently to allow them to grow up. But we also understand that total disengagement is not the solution. Our students would not be the inquisitive, disciplined and community-minded people they are without a history of parental involvement. So what sense does it make for parents to suspend those connections for four years once move-in day is over?
The antidote to excessive parental involvement is constructive engagement — a way for parents to stay meaningfully involved with their children during this new phase in their growth. We speak plainly about the areas where many parents today have a difficult time shifting gears. We counsel that most of the interventions they made on their children’s behalf when they were younger should now be responsibilities of the child. And we make known that, when parents call us and say their son or daughter would kill them if he or she knew they were calling the president, our first thought is that the child may have a good point.
We remind parents that this generation was raised differently than ours. Remember pick-up games? Kids would get together and play baseball, basketball and soccer without parents or coaches screaming “encouragement” from the sidelines. Isn’t it amazing how we survived our childhoods without orange slices provided by our parents?
College is a time when parents can grant their children the precious opportunity to take responsibility as they develop into independent young men and women, fully prepared to be productive and engaged citizens. To the parents of children who don’t like their roommates, teachers, academic advisers or grades, we urge empathy and calm. The social and survival skills young people develop in these situations will serve them well later in life. And we are proud to note the tremendous effort we put into enrolling a student body that reflects almost every difference you can imagine — income, nationality, race, gender, sexuality, and spiritual and political beliefs. If a child lives in a cocoon of familiarity, that effort is wasted, and there is little chance that he or she will be prepared for the world after graduation.
So parents can help by gently pushing their children to embrace complexity and diversity and to stretch the limits of their comfort zones. Some of the most important learning we provide is uncomfortable learning — where students take classes in subjects they find intimidating, and live, study and play with classmates from backgrounds very different from their own.
Young people need advice and encouragement to take advantage of the remarkable learning and social opportunities available in college. Parents are often best at providing that support. So we ask parents to urge their children to avail themselves of all that the campus offers — lectures by visiting faculty, dignitaries and celebrities; performances and exhibitions by classmates with extraordinary musical, artistic and theatrical talents; athletic events where students can wear the school colors and scream their heads off. When their children tell them about fascinating courses, or entire programs or majors that can expand their horizons but that they are reluctant to try, parents should offer counsel and support. And please, we implore our parents, remind your children that, in an environment of almost total freedom, it will now be up to them to make responsible decisions about alcohol and sex.
Having raised smart and accomplished kids, most parents are able, with a little guidance, to recognize the difference between being a constructive partner in their child’s educational journey and being a counterproductive, infantilizing, control freak.
As for those who choose to ignore that advice, we have a simple message: Should you decide to park your helicopter in the middle of the freshman quad, you will be ticketed and towed.