Back to School: How Not to Be a Helicopter Parent

Helen Johnson
Thursday, August 14, 2008 1:00 PM

As the school year approaches, many parents will be sending their kids away to college or to school for the first time. Helen Johnson, author of "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money," was online Thursday, August 14 at 1 p.m. ET to offer advice about loosening your grip with grace.

A leading authority on parent relations in higher education, Johnson has more than 25 years of experience as a parents' program director, assistant dean of students, career center director, grant manager and writer.

A transcript follows.

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Helen Johnson: Welcome to this back-to-school discussion about parenting college students! You have a big adventure in store and I hope to be able to help you navigate this important transition for you and your new (or continuing) college student.

Here's a bit about me:

Helen E. Johnson is the nation's leading consultant to colleges and universities in the area of parent relations. The founder of Cornell University's first Parents' Program, she has worked for more than 30 years in higher education. Recently featured on ABC's 20/20 and World News Tonight and quoted in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Oprah Magazine, and the Boston Globe, she is a nationally recognized expert on parenting college students.

Author of the acclaimed advice book, Don't Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years, Ms. Johnson speaks and writes on a range of issues that impact college students and their parents.


Oviedo, Fla.: I let my high school sophmore set up her own AP sked by herself -- meeting with the counselor and signing a contract. It is her deal. Having said that, I do fear that as a single mom on a tight budget I will want to know where every dime is spent in college. I can't spring for an extra semester if she punts on prereqs and comes up short for graduation. Am I being prudent here or depriving her of a chance to learn the value of money and planning?

Helen Johnson: Good for you for encouraging your daughter to handle her own academic schedule. This experience will give her confidence in her ability to handle college-level work as well. I understand your concerns about a tight budget and your desire to make sure that she uses her resources wisely. It's important that you make that clear to her by sitting down and having a frank discussion about the resources you are willing and able to offer for her education. Work with her to set up a realistic budget, at least for the first semester and then be ready to have the discussion again and again as she goes through her four years. While you may not be able to know where every dime is spent, you can make it clear what your expectations are for her managing her money.


New York, N.Y.: Are there enough peer counselors on most college campuses, and are they effective in reaching out to prevent students from beginning a downward spiral into more trouble?

Helen Johnson: Most college campuses today are working hard to meet the increasing need for counseling. It would be a good idea, if this is a concern for you, to contact the college and make some inquiries about what peer counseling programs are in effect to deal with students' struggles. Particularly in the first year, most colleges are keenly aware of the adjustment issues that surface. The first line of help is usually residence hall staff who are trained to notice and deal with students they feel are in distress. It would be helpful to sit down with your student and talk frankly about the challenges he or she will be facing as a new college student. Discuss the possibilities that concern you and remind your student that there are resources on campus to help through difficult situations. Let your student know that you understand that life on campus may not always be smooth and carefree and that you are confident in his or her ability to get help if it's needed. Most students, with a few bumps in the road, end up coping just fine but it's always helpful to discuss what might occur and help your student brainstorm ways to cope with difficulties.


Silver Spring, Md.: In the same paper, you've got an article on helicopter parents and another article based on anectdotal findings on the "alarming" number of children accessing prescription medicines through the parents medicine cabinets (this despite documented evidence of decreased drug useage). The extent of both of these phenomena is grossly exaggerated by the media. I guess yet another case of how cuts in media budgets have impacted actual research and reporting. The presence of helicopter parents would negate teens raiding medicine cabinets, a drop in drug usage and the relatively low number of teens accessing pills through family medicine cabinets indicates that this really isn't a problem in the first place. The premise of this chat is not that there are rising rates of overly-protective parents (although there may be), but is rather a forum for discussion about loosening your grip on your kids lives. However, maybe Helen can speak to a possible link between absent (or hovering) parents and higher rates of drug use?

Helen Johnson: Actually, the extent of the phenomena called "helicopter parenting" is not exaggerated in my opinion, having worked with college parents for many years. There is solid evidence that this style of 'hyperparenting' has, in fact, created far more fragile kids, even though the parents may be very well intentioned. Harvard psychologist, Jerome Kagan, among others, has show unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering over them and not allowing them to experience any difficulty and thereby learn that they are capable actors in their own lives. When a parent continually 'fixes' things for a child, the child learns an important and damaging lesson and that is that he or she is not capable of managing their own life. Helicopter parents, again often with the best of intentions, are actually making it impossible for these children to accomplish the developmental tasks necessary for fully independent adulthood. This type of parenting, unfortunately, has more to do with the parents' need to be needed than the child's need for this level of rescuing.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I have a daughter who will be enrolling as a freshman at Stanford in a month. Do you have any guidelines as to appropriate levels of spending money which would cover trips to the bookstore, getting an occasional manicure, grabbing Friday night pizza with friends and maybe a train trip to SF once or twice a semester? We are covering all of her room, board, tuition and travel as well.

Helen Johnson: While any guidelines for spending money will vary widely between cities and towns where colleges are located, it's a good idea to sit down with your daughter and make up a spending money budget. It's probably relatively easy to figure out what a manicure and pizza would cost in Palo Alto, it's the trip to the bookstore that may be a shock. College textbooks can run from $500-800 per term so if you're including textbooks in your budget, it's good to be prepared for that significant expense. The most important thing is that you sit down and discuss these expenditures and keep the lines of communication open as she experiences her first year and the budget may need to be revised. It's also reasonable to explore the idea of her working part-time on campus to help defray some of her 'extras.'


Alexandria, Va.: What's the difference between a helicopter mom and a mom? I've seen dads at my playground do the helicopter whirl when the mom was just being a bit more careful than Dad.

Helen Johnson: The difference, as I've observed it, is that a mom understands her role in helping a child develop into an independent being, taking into consideration the stages of development when deciding whether to intercede in her child's life. A helicopter mom, I'm afraid, is acting out her own need to be needed, loved, and to stay close to her child. This means that the child does not develop the experiences and resilience needed to become independent. The helicopter mom cannot stand it if her child is experiencing any discomfort or problem and is compelled to step in and fix the situation, thus robbing her child of those vital developmental tasks that build true confidence and self-reliance. You are correct in observing that this phenomenon is not limited to moms. There are plenty of helicopter dads around too.


Washington, D.C.: Working as an RA in college, I'd say the best thing you can do to prepare your kids is to not do everything for them. I once had a mother ask me what her son was supposed to do with his wet towels. I said, "Uhh, whatever he does with them at home," which apparently was not good enough. Raise independent, competent kids and they'll be just fine on their own.

Helen Johnson: Thank you for your wise advice! I can tell you've been there!

You're absolutely right that it's a gift to college faculty and staff and to the student as well when a parent has done a good job of preparing the student for independent living. It's shocking, indeed, the number of students who come to college never having done a load of laundry, managed money, cooked a meal or been in charge of their own daily schedule.


New York, N.Y.: How do colleges balance the awareness that most college students do stupid things because of peer pressure and "rites of passage" and yet accept this without making those who get in trouble appear to be victims of selective enforcement?

Helen Johnson: I'm not sure what you mean by selective enforcement, but I do understand that many college students do stupid things for a number of reasons. Many colleges are now cracking down on underage drinking and drug use and notifying parents when a student has broken the law. If a student is caught underage drinking or using drugs, I'm not sure he or she can claim to be a victim. While it's true that some do and some do not get caught breaking the law, that doesn't change the fact that those who do get caught are culpable for their actions. May not be 'fair,' but it is a consequence of their own behavior -- a lesson that has enormous value in the process of growing up and accepting responsibility.


Virginia: Can you offer any advice for parents who have, in the past, taken too much ownership in their kids lives and want to back off a bit? What are some first steps?

Helen Johnson: One wise parent told me that she realized that she needed to move from being a 'manager' to being a 'consultant' when her daughter went to college. I think that's a useful way of describing what I would call mentoring parenting. The first step is to change your parenting style. My book describes in detail just what kinds of responses are helpful in nearly all of the situations that may arise in the college years. One particular challenge for new college parents is to recognize that their students need some autonomy in order to grow into adulthood. This means not checking in on them every day, having trust in the good job you've done as a parent so that you can relax the vigilance. When dumps in the road occur, becoming a wise counselor as opposed to a 'jump in and fix it' parent. This means listening, empathizing, helping your child to come up with his or her own solutions to problems, and, above all expressing faith in your child's ability to handle his or her own dilemmas. Of course, they'll struggle a bit and may even fail from time to time, but it is through managing those feelings and situations that students in college learn how to cope and eventually manage their own lives. Isn't that what you've been working toward all of these years?


Detroit, Mich.: My daughter signed up for a substance-free dorm at her college -- it was her decision and I was very pleased that she chose to do so. But I still am concerned about her living on her own -- even in a dorm -- at 17. She'll turn 18 in October, but she still seems so young to me to be on her own. Any advice for me? Or for her?

Helen Johnson: Your daughter appears to be exercising good judgment, although just 17 years old. I hope you can take heart in the fact that she's already making good choices about how she wants her college experience to be. It's true for most parents that when they send a child to college they seem so young, partly because they have yet to test their capacities for living without the safety net of home and parents. Even though she has chosen a substance-free residence hall, I would still encourage you to have a frank talk with her about high-risk behaviors at college. Ask her how she might handle hypothetical situations (i.e., she's at a party where there is alcohol, she finds a friend passed out from drinking, she may find herself pressured to 'hook up' with someone) and brainstorm with her how she might react. She'll probably have tricky situations to deal with and it helps to have a point of view beforehand, even though she might not handle everything the way you'd like. It's part of her learning to be herself -- and you can take pride and comfort in the fact that you've helped her on her way. Most students graduate from college with their family's core values well in tact, but that doesn't mean they won't confront difficulties and question those values from time to time.


Arlington, Va.: My daughter is starting school out of state -- about a three-hour drive from here. How do we navigate that distance? I don't want to encourage her to come home too much, but I also don't want to discourage her from coming home at all. I'm also worried about the transportation issues -- how we'll deal with getting her back here without always having to have it be a six-hour round trip for us (she won't have a car). Any thoughts?

Helen Johnson: You're right that you shouldn't encourage her to come home too much. In fact, I recommend that she not come home at all until fall break. Have a talk with her and reinforce how important it will be for her to feel a part of the college community and that means staying there and making friends and finding things to do on the weekends. Chances are that she'll make friends who have cars and may be able to carpool for trips home. I would also encourage you not to visit her for at least the first 6 weeks to 2 months of her first semester. This time is critical for new students to integrate into college life. Of course, she may want to come home but I'd encourage her not to -- coming home too much does not contribute to her growth and capacity to find a new life on campus.


Virginia: In my opinion, kids with disabilities going to colleges often have their parents involved with the campus's disability services office. Not overbearing, but useful since not all disabilities are the same.

Helen Johnson: I agree that it's useful for parents initially to have some contact with the campus's disability services office, if for nothing more than to reassure themselves that their student will be taken care of. After that initial contact, however, it's best to encourage your student to manage the relationship with that office him or herself.


Starting high school: My son will be starting high school this year. He's smaller than a lot of boys his age and my husband and I are worried that he'll be picked on or bullied. We don't want to interfere too much but we also don't want him to have to fend off kids that are bigger and/or meaner than he is all by himself. Have you dealt at all with bullying? Have any thoughts on how we can encourage and/or protect him without making a big deal out of things. We live in an urban area and he'll be going from a private grade school into a public school for the first time, so he will not have many friends with him as he starts out.

Helen Johnson: This is outside of my area of expertise, but I would suggest that you ask the new school what policies are in place to deal with bullying and then have a talk with your son about ways that he can approach relationships at his new school. There are also many good books on dealing with this sad reality in schools.


Philadelphia: I'm a few years out of college, but wanted to suggest Oviedo do what my parents did. They told my two siblings and me that they would cover four years of college for each of us -- if we took longer to graduate because we fooled around and didn't keep on track, the extra semesters were our responsibility. My oldest sibling got scholarships to cover the costs of her books (there are lots of scholarships that many people ignore because they're "only" $500-1,000), which of course set the bar for me and my other sibling to do the same. Extras (including, if we took that route, fraternity/sorority dues) we paid for ourselves -- we all did work-study and found jobs or paid internships in summers. Encourage your children to use checks (assuming they don't bounce them) -- that will force them to keep track of their spending, and writing out "hundred" makes more of an impression than just signing a credit card slip.

Completely non-scientifically, from my experiences those students who were responsible for paying for at least some of their time at school tended to be fairly careful. The ones whose parents bailed them out every step of the way were the ones who tended to get into trouble, fail (or come close enough it was a waste of money for them to be there), and just generally not demonstrate an ability to take care of themselves. One of my friends made a killing the first month of school every year just teaching people how to do their laundry.

Helen Johnson: Great response -- and advice. Thank you.


Annapolis, Md.: What are your recommendations to best prepare the young adult (in advance) for this transition for what is basically their first time on their own?

Helen Johnson: I think it's wise to begin giving your young adult increased freedoms and responsibilities all through the high school years in preparation for the challenges of college. In addition to managing their own schedule, doing their laundry, handling a checking account and other practical matters, it's also useful to remove a curfew (if you have one) and talk with your child about the responsibilities and freedoms they'll have in college. It's critical that if the child screws up (while still living at home and enjoying a safety net) that you impose consequences for behavior that is not acceptable. Nearly every college student, on their own for the first time, makes mistakes in judgment. It's useful if they've had some experience beforehand.


Arlington, Va.: For parents on a tight budget: We let our kids know early in high school that they have to finance they own pocket money -- pizzas, parties, beach weeks, club memberships, etc., in college so they would know to save some of their earnings. They didn't always make wise choices in college but we stayed out of it. Also, we set a limit on how many semesters we'd pay for. One of our three came up short and had to scramble. It was a valuable lesson.

Helen Johnson: Good for you -- valuable life lessons that will help them in the future!


Arlington, Va.: Can you provide a few words of advice for parents of kids who have challenges that require more than the optimal level of parental involvement? My daughter is very ADD and the normal "let them fail so they can learn from their mistakes" is just not in the cards in a lot of situations. The learning takes so much longer, and the risks are so much higher. I am truly scared of what will happen when she (hopefully) goes off to college in two years.

Helen Johnson: First of all, it's important to get your fear under control so that it doesn't transfer to your daughter. When you begin to look at colleges, make sure that she chooses one that has a good learning disabilities office and support. These services are available at many, many colleges. This is something that she is probably going to have to deal with for the rest of her life -- when she gets to college, it's important that she learns how to do that.


Denver, Colo.: My high school sophomore daughter is in the International Baccalaureate program. I know what her coordinator says about the program and how she feels it prepares kids for college. In your opinion, does it give them an edge? I'm already having nightmares about my daughter's helicopter dad. I can just see us moving next door to whatever college she attends. I'm hoping IB success will translate to her dad relaxing and letting her experience college on her own terms.

Helen Johnson: I don't know about an edge, but if it is, it's her edge and her opportunity to prepare herself for college. The important thing is that you need to let this be HER experience. You and your husband can begin now to adopt a different parenting style which will prepare her to be on her own when she gets ready to go to college. It's key that you examine your motivations that end up in helicoptering behavior and nightmares! Are you trying to live your life through her? If so, it's really important that you figure that out and stop. Otherwise, you'll have a sadly dependent daughter and you'll be doomed to unnecessary worries forever.


Philadelphia: I'm a single, no kids, 41-year-old female. Most of my friends have kids. I spend a lot of time with them. Often the parents get upset if you say "no" to the the precious ones. They aren't allowed to hear that word. It's a negative connotation. I've also heard that these kids can't get "cut" from the local teams because they won't know what it's like to be part of a team. What about when these kids get to a job and they are fired or laid off. What will happen to this generation? I just don't get it! Why do parents feel that their children should be and for the most part are entitled to anything they ever want? Is this helping anyone?

Helen Johnson: No, it certainly is not helping those children grow into responsible adults who understand that life is not a smooth and easy path. Employers, unfortunately, are already having to deal with the fragile and entitled young people who work for them.


Wheaton, Md.: How often is reasonable to call or email? I want to have a feel for how she's doing, but am trying to control my helicopter tendencies.

Helen Johnson: I think once a week is a good idea. It may be helpful to have a talk with your daughter before she leaves home and let her know that you'll be fine and trust her to manage her new life on campus. Then, discuss how often each of you would like to be in touch -- daily is not a good idea but you may compromise on a couple of times a week for the first few weeks as she gets settled into a new routine. Good for you for being aware of your helicopter tendencies -- that's half the battle at least!


St. Paul, Minn. : Hi Helen -- I recently heard an expert in this area (maybe you!) make the comment that when classes end and students immediately take out the cell phones (I see this first hand as a college professor), it's not their friends they're calling, it's mom or dad to tell them how class went. No wonder my ears were always burning. Can you comment on that? It seems like technology has had a huge influence on parents' involvement with their children in college (and leading potentially, to "helicoptering"). When I was a student I called my parents every two weeks, and we kept it to five minutes to save on the phone bill.

Helen Johnson: That could have been me -- it's certainly a phenomenon that is present on every college campus. A colleague of mine at Cornell had a student pull out her cell phone during an advising session and announce, "Tell that to my Mom." While this is a bit extreme (although not uncommon), the cell phone/email environment has created an electronic umbilical cord between parents and students that I think is damaging on several levels. Not only does it replace the time for reflection that might occur after class (or maybe even talking to fellow students about the ideas covered in class), it sets up a continual co-dependence with parents who are aware of every little detail about a student's life. Technology has facilitated 'helicopter' parenting to an enormous degree. Unfortunately, this capacity has resulted in a student population which most experts believe is developmentally delayed and unable to function without constant reinforcement from parents. My feeling is that it's up to the parents to do something about this enmeshment. It's a curious phenomenon, as well, that students are so accepting of intrusive parenting, even beyond the college years and into the world of work.


Washington, D.C.: University administrator here. I would also encourage parents to understand that federal privacy laws (FERPA) prevent many universities from contacting parents if their student is involved in drug violations, etc. on campus. This is because students are over 18 and therefore an adult. It's not that administrators don't want to contact parents in certain instances, it's that legally, we cannot.

Helen Johnson: While it's true that FERPA prevents universities from sharing grade reports with parents, many universities of late have developed policies that have been approved to notify parents regarding drug and alcohol violations. This is different than student privacy -- it's an adult violating the law.


Charlotte, N.C.: My son also goes to an out-of-state college and does not have a car. When he comes to visit us he catches a greyhound bus so we didn't have to drive the four hours there and four back. We only see him at Thanksgiving and Christmas break.

Helen Johnson: Good plan!


Syracuse, N.Y.: How do the new HIPPA laws impact a parent's ability to see if their money is being wisely spent? Do you think it is inappropriate for a parent footing the bill to insist on seeing midterm reports or grades?

Helen Johnson: HIPPA laws refer to health information, not grade reports. This is in addition to FERPA and relates to a student's right to privacy regarding health and medical treatment. Yes, I do think it's inappropriate for a parent to insist on seeing grades. As long as an 18-year-old is a legal adult, he or she, in my opinion, has certain privacy rights. That being said, it's entirely appropriate for a parent to expect that son or daughter to share grade reports with them. Most universities offer students a waiver they can sign to release grade reports to their parents. Some students do that, others don't. If you're having problems finding out how your student is doing in class, there is undoubtedly a deeper communication problem and one that you should address with your student. Of course, you can always play the money card, but what's your end goal in doing that?


Bowie, Md.: Why do you think today's parents are, generally, so much more helicopterish than in previous generations? Do they just have more time on their hands? Fewer kids to manage? What gives?

Helen Johnson: In the early 1980's a sort of 'perfect storm' of parenting occurred. People began marrying later and having children later -- and many had fewer children than in past generations. This was also the beginning of a national movement in child health and safety (car seats, etc.) that encouraged a preoccupation with child rearing. At the same time, the research became available that indicated that parents could affect brain development in their children (even in utero) and so parenting went from being a practice of caring for a child to a science and engineering to creating the perfect, bright, accomplished child. Parenting became a vital enterprise, especially for middle and upper class families, and one that shed light (positive or negative) on the parents themselves. I believe people focused their most intense energies on raising the accomplished child and both parents and children have suffered as a result. This is a short answer to a complicated set of circumstances that occurred -- if you're interested in reading more, A Nation of Wimps by Hara Marano is a good start.


IB mom, with clarification: I wasn't very clear in my post. Sorry. Daughter got herself into IB. I didn't even know about the program. She's also in marching band, and is studying a foreign language not offered at her school. She's doing fine, in other words. I contend that she should be doing her own laundry, cleaning her own room, paying for her own "treats," etc. Dad feels he is supporting her when he does her laundry, cleans her room, pays for things that should come out of her allowance. I don't think this creates a good foundation for the day she will be on her own. College isn't just about good grades, especially if you don't know how to take care of basic needs by yourself. Dad doesn't seem to trust the fact that, so far, she has been the architect of her successes. True, she needs our support, but that doesn't extend to us doing for her what she is capable of doing for herself, especially outside of the classroom. I guess my concern is more about getting Dad to let go.

Helen Johnson: Good for you -- you've identified the main concern. Your daughter seems to be doing very well -- now you need to work on your relationship with your husband and get on the same parenting page! Good luck!


Burbank, Calif.: Wonderful discussion. I work in H.R. at a large movie studio and we have seen some new trends: parents wanting to sit in on job interviews with their kids and even wanting to attend new hire orientation! Blows my mind.

Helen Johnson: Thanks for your comment -- this sentiment has been echoed too many times by employers for us to think of these as isolated instances. If companies would only stay firm in excising parents, they would do a service to themselves and their new hires as well.


Helen Johnson: Thanks to everyone who shared their concerns and comments during this discussion. It's been a pleasure to chat with you!


_______________________ Thanks for joining in on the discussion. Our discussion series concludes tomorrow at 11 a.m. ET with Wired bloggers, Jose Fermoso and Charlie Sorrel, who will talk back-to-school technology.


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