“Helicopter parents.” Most of us have heard the phrase and, if truth be told, many of us are helicopter parents. The description originally was used by teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter. It refers to over-parenting or being so involved in a child’s life that the parent controls the child’s activities, friends and school activities.
We have seen plenty of examples of parents’ extreme involvement in not only middle and high school, but also in college. Parents of young adults sometimes phone teachers about their child’s poor grades, complete their school projects for them or try to get them promoted into club leadership positions.
Researchers have investigated why helicopter parenting exists and have come up with a number of reasons. First, parents might worry about the job market or economy and feel they need to help their children. Second, parents might think that without their help, their children will fail in school and life.
Third, parents might see other parents helping their children and feel they have to keep up with them. They might think, “If all of the other parents are helping their children on their science projects, and I don’t help my child, his or her project will be graded poorer.”
Fourth, parents might provide extra help to make up for the neglect they experienced from their own parents. As one mom told me: “I had a miserable childhood, and I want to protect my child from ever having to go through that.” This mother routinely talks to teachers to ensure that her child never has to sit near or deal with any difficult child in the classroom.
Fifth, parents might help their older children if they feel they were too busy when their children were young, and did not spend enough time with them. Finally, children are often seen as an extension of the parents’ success, so making sure children have an impressive résumé reflects positively on the parents.
Today, helicopter parenting has gone beyond just the classrooms and schoolyards. It has entered the workplace as the millennial generation grows up and moves beyond college. I have heard many examples from work colleagues about parents who have been involved in everything from job interviews to performance coaching sessions.
I know of cases where parents have completed job applications for their children, prepared their résumés, gone to job interviews with their children, helped negotiate job offers and extra vacation time, and written follow-up thank you notes. Some parents even have phoned bosses to complain about their child’s performance review or salary increase.
In extreme cases, helicopter parents have posed as the child during phone interviews or shown up to work when the child wanted to extend his or her vacation.
Staying involved in a child’s life is generally good, but parents go too far when they prevent their children from learning how to cope with failure or challenges on their own. Parents also deprive their children of feelings of autonomy when they make all their choices for them (what to study, where to go to school and what activities to pursue).
By handling all of the tough issues for their children in the workplace, parents might be instilling a sense of entitlement. Plus, coddled children will not learn how to deal with conflict or disappointments — essential skills for successful managers.
Many employers are so distressed by parental involvement in the job search process that they withdraw interview or job offers once the parents get involved. Other employers state that they have trouble promoting employees who have hovering parents. As they note, parents cannot give their child a career. The child has to earn it.
Nevertheless, employers can use helicopter parents to their advantage. If these parents have influence on their child’s decision of where to intern or work, employers might be able to positively sway the parents as a way of enticing a qualified candidate to apply to the firm. Some companies have sent recruitment packages to not only potential job applicants but also to their parents.
Other simple measures can satisfy a parent’s need to feel involved. Some companies have set up a “take your parent to work day” as a way to appease parental curiosity as to what their child does at work. Colleges have set up parent relations offices and parent councils, and maybe employers need to think about something similar. Or not.
One thing to note: Don’t discount applicants or employees just because they have helicopter parents. These young adults might not know their parents are reaching out on their behalf. Or they might have tried to get their parents to stop these behaviors to no avail.
If applicants or employees are strong, you should not punish them for their parents’ behavior. After all, we cannot choose our parents or whether or not they like to hover.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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