By Alfie Kohn
Helicopter parents of college-age children are the folks we love to hate. A steady stream of articles and blog posts bristle with indignation over dads who phone the dean about a trivial problem or moms who are too involved with junior’s love life. But how common are such incidents, really? And how damaging are the effects of helicopter parenting (HP) when it does occur?
Even academic articles on the subject tend to offer generalizations drawn from popular media coverage — coverage that, in turn, relies mostly on anecdotes. When you track down hard data, however, the results contrast sharply with the conventional wisdom. Yes, most parents are in touch with their college-age children on a regular basis. But communicating isn’t the same thing as intervening on a child’s behalf, and the latter seems to be fairly rare. The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which reached out to more than 9,000 students at 24 colleges and universities, found that only 13 percent of college freshmen and 8 percent of seniors said a parent had frequently intervened to help them solve problems.
As one university administrator told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The popular image of modern parents as high-strung nuisances who torment college administrators doesn’t match reality.” In any case, students certainly don’t seem to be tormented by their parents. An overwhelming majority of the 10,000-plus University of California students contacted in a separate 2009 survey said their parents weren’t involved in their choice of courses or their major.
Alarming media reports have also claimed that parents hover when their young-adult children enter the workplace, but there’s little basis for that claim either. Michigan State University researchers found that 77 percent of the 725 employers they surveyed “hardly ever witnessed a parent while hiring a college senior.” As for grown children outside of college and the workplace, the only study on the topic I could find, published in 2012, reported that just one in five or six parents seemed to be intensely involved in their children’s lives.
But what about the effects of such parenting when it does occur? Three small studies have raised concerns about the more extreme versions of HP, connecting it to anxiety or a lower sense of well-being. In each of these studies, questionnaires were given to about 300 students at a single college. But it turned out that the items on these questionnaires were mostly tapping how controlling the parents were. If the problem is control rather than indulgence, that forces us to rethink the “coddled kids” narrative offered by many critics of HP.
And there’s another problem: It’s not clear that HP caused the problems with which it was associated. The researchers in one study acknowledged that unhappy students “may view their parents as more intrusive.” Those in another admitted that “when parents perceive their child as depressed, they may be more likely to ‘hover.’” In other words, pre-existing unhappiness may have drawn the parents in, or it may have led the students to interpret their parents’ actions as excessive. Either way, the evidence doesn’t prove that HP makes kids unhappy.
Other research, meanwhile, has actually made a case in favor of parents’ being actively connected and involved with their young-adult children. The NSSE survey didn’t find a lot of HP going on, but students who did have such parents reported “higher levels of [academic] engagement and more frequent use of deep learning activities.” In fact, children of helicopter parents were more satisfied with every aspect of their college experience.
Similarly, in that 2012 study of grown children, “frequent parental involvement, including a wide range of support, was associated with better well-being for young adults.” Support (not limited to money) from one’s parents may be helpful, if not critical, when students graduate with a crushing load of debt.
Denunciations of HP, however, seem to be based less on evidence than on a scornful attitude about young people — witness a Time cover depicting a young man sitting in a sandbox (“They Just Won’t Grow Up”) — and on the value judgment that kids ought to be become independent as soon as possible. But this judgment merits our skepticism. First, maturity isn’t the same as self-sufficiency. Most developmental psychologists have concluded that the quality of relationships, including those with one’s parents, continues to matter even past childhood. Good parenting is less about pushing one’s offspring to be independent at a certain age than being responsive to what a particular child needs.
Second, independence is closely connected to an individualistic worldview that is far from universal. Some cultures are more likely to emphasize the value of interdependence. And the cultural bias that seems to fuel condemnations of HP has a very real impact on students’ well-being. A fascinating series of studies published in 2012 by a multi-university research team revealed that “predominantly middle-class cultural norms of independence” are particularly ill-suited for young adults who are the first in their families to attend college. Those expectations create a hidden academic disadvantage for working-class students and students of color, with adverse effects on their academic performance and well-being.
Given the expectations of self-sufficiency that permeate elite colleges in particular, connections with, support from, and maybe even interventions by parents become that much more important to help students succeed. Strident denunciations of HP are particularly unfortunate, in other words, when no attention is paid to differences among students and their backgrounds.
In fact, given all the evidence that suggests it’s neither particularly pervasive nor pernicious, it may be time to reconsider our assumptions about helicopter parenting in general. Those assumptions tell us more about the people who make them than about the reality they presume to describe.