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Color of Money: It’s time to ditch the term ‘helicopter parent’ and stop being afraid to get involved

Michelle Singletary isn’t ashamed of being a highly involved, strict parent – the type others might (incorrectly, she says) call a “helicopter parent.” Singletary instead sees herself as a “shepherd parent,” steering her children back to the right path when they want to wander off. When it comes to helping your children succeed, she wrote in her recent electronic newsletter, “the bottom line: We can’t afford not to hover.”

In these excerpts from her weekly Color of Money live chat, Singletary, joined by Get There’s Jonnelle Marte, explains why she thinks it’s important to be a strict parent to your kids – and why we need to ditch the term “helicopter parent” for one that acknowledges the benefits of being involved. [Some questions have been edited for length and clarity.]

Q: I’ve always interpreted “helicopter parent” to mean a parent whose involvement hinders their child’s development. You gave the example of encouraging a student to apply for scholarships or internships. A helicopter parent would fill out the forms, write the essays, mail the application and call the company to follow up. This level of “help” prevents a student from developing the level of maturity and responsibility necessary to succeed in school and in a career. The student has no space to learn to fail and try again. You’re absolutely right about the importance of strict parenting, but some parents take it too far.

Michelle Singletary: Who knew I would open up such a can of concern? (Not worms.) I’m just struck at how often people tell parents to back off and let their kids fail in the name of letting them grow up. But some falls are way too hard for children who are still young. I’m thinking 18 to very early 20s. We need another name for the parent who encourages and nags their kid about internships or applying for scholarships but doesn’t do the work. I was thinking “Shepherd Parenting.”

What do others feel? Where is the line?

 Q: I guess I am the helicopter parent or strict parent. I recommended colleges, summer enrichment programs, summer jobs and volunteered my daughter for things she did not want to do. I made her stick it out when she wanted to quit. We applied to 15 colleges. Yes, we. I bought the filing box, folders, labels, SAT/ACT tests, envelopes, stamps, thank-you cards, etc., and showed her how to set everything up and organize it.

Did I write the essay? NO. But I reviewed and red-inked and checked for spelling errors. Strict parenting was showing that discipline, preparation and opportunity leads to success more often than not. Strict parenting meant loosening the reins so that she could taste independence and make her own decisions, while under my eyes.

Singletary: Nope. You are a shepherd. And you sound just like me. Especially the part about not letting her quit. I have a 14-year-old who would be a quitter if I let her. No, sir. Not in my house. You sign up for something, you honor your commitment. And I TOTALLY agree about the “we” applied for college, as it concerns my now-sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park. It is a joint effort. Especially since WE — me and my husband — are paying!!

Q: But you don’t let your children fail? What’s going to happen when you aren’t around? Do they have the skills to handle failure? That day will come. (Ask Dr. Seuss — “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”)

Singletary: You do have it wrong. They fail. All the time. But just like with a sheep that goes off in harm’s way, we shepherd them back to where they need to be. Some things are too big to let an 18-year-old flounder. Some things you let them see what happens when they don’t listen. Others, you pull, tug and fuss until they do the right thing.

Q: Fair enough. So at what age do you let them stand on their own two feet to live their own lives as adults, making their own decisions whether you like their choices or not?

Singletary: When they are paying ALL their bills. Until then you help, push, nudge, give unsolicited advice. Because you are still the full-time parent.

And, really, if you do it right, it does come sooner rather than later for many. I hardly have to say or do anything for my 19-year-old, who is in her second year at the University of Maryland. But just yesterday I had to fuss at her for not having a coat.

Q: I think the key with helicopter parents is whether they are operating in the foreground or the background. I provide lots of information to my two college students based on my own experiences, and also give my opinion about the options they are considering in terms of majors, classes and contacting their professors when issues come up. What I don’t do is write their papers or e-mail their professors myself or decide what they will major in. (Although I do exercise veto power on that!) That kind of behavior is excessive and harmful to the student in the long run. I work with a woman who wanted her son to apply to UMCP when he was not interested. She told him that she would write his application essay if he agreed to apply. That crosses the line. (Actually, it’s fraud.)

Jonnelle Marte: Good call! As a parent, you should provide support. But college is a time for children to learn how to manage their time and to develop a good work ethic. I would encourage them to seek internships, since work experience is as key to finding a job as the diploma is. No need to write papers, though!

Singletary: In college:

No paper writing.

No essay writing.

No calling professors.

A lot of giving advice still and making sure they are making the most of their college experience so they can get a job so they can get out of your house. 

Q: I do like that term shepherding, and I’m sure that if it’s done with love there will be a good outcome. I’m an aunt with more than 20 nieces and nephews. I’m trying to gently move these children and young adults towards good financial choices, but sometimes it’s hard to know how much to say to them, if they don’t ask. I just wish someone had shepherded me earlier and would like to be that person for them.

Singletary: What a great auntie. I have kids, but I’m forever sticking my nose in the personal finance business of my nieces and nephews. And you know what? They groan. But later, after they take my unsolicited advice, they thank me. So push. When they scream, stop. But be the little angel on their shoulder that they don’t want to listen to but need to.

 Q: I had a “Shepherd” mom, as well. The problem was that a lot of the advice she gave me was flat-out wrong, and I spent a lot of time trying to make sound decisions against her mandates and well-intentioned advice. She meant well, but the world had changed so much between the 1960s and the 1980s. My parents didn’t know what Early Decision was, drove dangerously old cars because “car salespeople can’t be trusted,” and tried to force me to stop investing in my 401k because “the stock market is a scam.” Parents who “shepherd” their children need to stay informed to ensure that they’re not sending their “sheep” into a pack of wolves.

Singletary: Very true. Information is only power if it’s the right information. 

Q: For a long time I disagreed with your view that parents should plan to pay for college. I worked through school and believed it was character-building. Then I had a baby. We’ve begun a 529, and a trust! I can’t imagine her going through the things I did just to pay bills! I’d rather raise a spoiled child than one who experiences those choices (food versus tuition, etc.). I am always going to be the overinvolved mom, I think. So, now I see your point!

Marte: Congratulations on the baby! I recently interviewed a father of eight who lives by your old way of thinking. He says he has no college fund and wants his children to pay their own way. (Needless to say, he evoked some strong responses.) With student loans being such an issue today, you are right in starting a fund for your child early. By saving a little now, hopefully it will grow to be enough by the time your child needs it so that she won’t have to go into debt. And you can find other ways to teach her about being responsible with money.

Singletary: So, I was right! Love it. Knew I was! Look, this is often how I approach parents who thought what you thought:

1. Given your view that your child should struggle and work like a dog or go deep into debt to pay for school, THEN you would not agree that he or she should be given a scholarship, right? They look at me like I’m crazy. So I continue: Well, if you shouldn’t help pay for school, why should someone else do so? Same principal, right? That they need to suffer to get the lesson? By then the honest ones understand my point.

I get it if you don’t have the money to pay or help pay for college because life happened. But if you have savings and can pay for your kid to go to college, it’s part of your parenting job. Because that brings me to:

2. How the heck is a kid going to save what he or she needs to pay for college unless he or she is a music star or a TV star? He or she can’t. So that means he or she has to work a ton of jobs, which can affect grades, or, as many do these days, he or she will have to borrow a ton of debt. But you, dear parent, are working. You have a job. You have the ability to start saving from the time the kid is born until his or her college days. So save if you can, as much as you can.

Now, does that mean you are raising a spoiled kid if you pay for college? Not if you parent right. My husband and I are paying in cash most of what my 19-year-old needs for college. But just like a scholarship, we have requirements. She must maintain a 3.0 GPA or better. She must behave responsibly. She has to go to church regularly. Our money. Our rules. She has agreed, and we are very, very happy. She is enjoying her college years without working like a dog — even though she does have a part-time job in her field of study. (That was another rule. She could work, but it had to be a job that helped her in her field.)

Long way to say, glad you changed your mind!

Q: Another point is that school is much more expensive now than when today’s parents of college kids were in school. Tuition has increased much faster than inflation. I graduated from an Ivy League university in 1992, and my tuition was $17k/year. Doesn’t that sound like a bargain now??

Marte: College costs are skyrocketing, which partially explains the rise in debt. That makes it more important for people to find ways to reduce costs, either by choosing a less expensive school, having the child live at home or with a relative and taking advantage of other programs like work study.

Singletary: Exactly!

Q: I also don’t associate helicopter parenting with strict parenting. To me the helicopter parents are the ones who refuse to believe their kids do anything wrong, shelter them from all consequences and e-mail the grad student’s future employer to ask about the dress code (ahem, not that this has ever happened to me). Though I do have a question for the involved parents, however you want to call it. When do you stop? You are pushing your college-age child to fill out applications, okay, but when does that end? At what point does independence actually take over?

Singletary: I’m a parent for life. You stop when they are paying for everything. Grown. As they get older you do let go … but you are not gone. That’s my point. I’m one of the biggest advocates for personal responsibility. But you have to use common sense as to when you are helping and when you are enabling.

The next Color of Money chat takes place Nov. 13 at noon ET. You can submit your personal finance questions at this link.