Can helicopter parents learn to let their children soar?

By Stephen G. Emerson
Friday, November 26, 2010;

Not long ago, I visited my freshman daughter at college for Parents' Weekend. Like many parents of my generation, I was reminded of how lucky I was to have applied to college when admission standards were lower. But my experience resonated on another level as I prepared for another Parents' Weekend. In addition to feeling responsible for my daughter, I feel responsible for 1,182 other children, those whose parents dropped them off at Haverford College, where I happen to serve as president.

After two decades as a father and three-plus years as a college president, I do not know everything about how to be a parent to a college student. But I know not to hover over my now-adult daughter. It's hard to refrain from butting in with "have you thought about" and "here's how to do it" and, the worst one of all, "how about if I call . . ." These fatherly inclinations arise despite the fact that my daughter is super-smart, independent and demonstrably capable of handling things on her own, thank you very much, Dad.

We parents seek to take control out of concern for our children: What if they do not make the correct choice, because they are not ready or do not know how to do so? But what if the urge to hover plays havoc with more than one's peace of mind? What if helicoptering is our generation's greatest cultural sin, in that it could have lifelong effects on children taught to believe that they are incapable of autonomy? And what if, in turn, the consequences of hovering are not limited to individual personalities? Will children develop a sense of inadequacy thanks to parents' inability or refusal to allow them to make their own way? Will this exert an unfortunate shaping effect on our collective future?

I wonder, too, whether my parental anxieties might reflect a larger cultural transformation about which I need to be mindful, both as a parent and as a college president. Is it possible that our children are simply processing the world differently and that our perception of their competence is rooted in something that has more to do with us than them? Consider: As children of the Internet, they function as parallel processors, making their way by creating a personal mosaic of information and insight that they have integrated and assembled into the world as they see it. Truly, they are as unique as their browsing histories. And even more amazing, they do all of this on the fly, much the way a Web page gets assembled by databases and the way the Web itself provides many pieces of larger pictures.

My generation, on the other hand, seems to prefer clear authorship and packaged sets of ideas that are of a piece and complete. Perhaps this is the fundamental difference between being raised on TV, which is largely linear and packaged, versus being raised on the Web, which is by definition fragmented. All of which makes me wonder: Do we hover because we're afraid that we are the ones who are struggling with this brave new world?

Fortunately, my anti-anxiety medicine is handy. I simply walk out my office and go . . . anywhere on campus, where I meet youth who reassure me, daily, that young people like them have what it takes to make it on their own. (Do these kids remind me of my daughter? Absolutely.) This sense of reassurance is admittedly easy to acquire at Haverford, which expects its students to be independent and creative thinkers. Virtually all undergraduates will author a senior thesis that is produced at graduate-student levels. Socially, they play a huge role in running the college, shaping regulations and even adjudicating cases of possible academic misconduct via their honor code. They emerge knowing what is required to solve problems intellectually and in terms of working collaboratively for the betterment of their communities.

I know my role, and my place relative to my daughter's life is changing. Each day takes her farther down the road. I've come to realize I am not growing distant from her as she acquires her independence but that we are realigning. Before, when we were on a clear grown-up/child path, I probably - yes - hovered above. Now I find myself at her side. It is a remarkable change. And as our journeys continue, we parents will see our position relative to our children shift yet again. We will be behind them, and they will be leading us.

With any luck, I'll have done all I can to enable all of my students to become independent, autonomous adults. Indeed, I hope they thrive. Our changing world is going to need all the skills, passions and sensibilities they have to offer.

The writer is president of Haverford College.

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