The moment is here, long awaited with both dread and excitement — your baby is heading off to college. Your child is going out into the world without you, and there’s so much you’ve done to ensure that they’ve made it this far. It’s natural to want to hover and stick close by to continue to make sure they’re okay, but I urge you to take a step back and allow them to experience college on their own terms.
As a college president, I’ve had one too many phone calls from “helicopter” parents trying to solve a problem on behalf of their student. And while these parents may have their children’s best interest in mind, calling the president of your child’s college does not help to resolve roommate conflicts or address classroom issues that would best be handled directly between your student and the professor. If anything, your involvement blows situations out of proportion and leaves your child seemingly helpless.
We start helicoptering out of a necessity to ensure the safety of our children. Babies and toddlers need close supervision to ensure their physical safety from choking hazards, skinned knees and busy roads. Even as they continue to grow, we want to keep them from harm like bullies and negative peer pressure. As parents, we should slowly ease up on our hovering to allow our growing children to become more sure-footed and confident. Then we must gradually push them to become independent and to take on more responsibility, trusting them to navigate more deftly on their own.
But sometimes, we don’t.
We hover and problem-solve, which is stunting for our students. In fact, studies have increasingly shown correlations between our helicoptering and a decline in the mental well-being of our children and an increase in their neediness. Our kids become too reliant on us, fearful of trying new things or trying to overcome challenges. And we can damage their self-esteem and their own problem-solving skills by suggesting they can’t do it without our help.
By the time college rolls around, your child needs to take charge of his or her own opportunities and challenges. Whether you’ve built in gradual release of responsibility or you’ll be setting down the chopper cold turkey, think of college as an opportunity to step back and get a better view of the big picture for both you and your child.
Many students arrive on our campuses with stellar GPAs and rankings at the top of their graduating class, but collegiate coursework requires a different level of engagement and is often more rigorous. Parents must allow their children to adjust their studying habits to meet the increased rigor, work for grades they deserve and find their own voices should self-advocacy be necessary. This means parents should not call the professor if their child receives less than an A on an assignment, not petition a final grade with the dean or president, and not supersede their child’s choice of courses or professors. As an ultimate example, I know of a mother who wanted to complete her daughter’s internship for her because she felt her daughter was too stressed out. That mother should have instead talked to her daughter about time management and reviewed if she, herself, was adding to her child’s pressure.
Certainly, there are still some potential risks and obstacles that your child will encounter beyond academic challenges — new living arrangements, choices about finances, sexual health and self-care — but hopefully, at this point, they have had enough experience with your guidance and not interference to make safe and responsible decisions on their own.
And perhaps we need to reframe how we think of failure — especially in an environment that allows for second chances. Failure is not always a danger, but in fact an opportunity to reflect and grow. If your child does something unsuccessfully or perhaps makes a poor judgment, let them experience the consequences and the self-reflection.
Take, for instance, the student who, after failing to make the final cut on the baseball team, called his father and asked him to drive up and speak to the coach. The father wouldn’t do it, and instead urged his son to speak to the coach and also suggested that his son work with the coach on a fitness program that might better prepare him for the next tryouts. The young man did just that. He showed up and observed every game and worked out with the team. And the following year, he did make the team.
For bigger issues, there are often multiple steps or opportunities before outcomes are final, like taking a class a second time, choosing a major, or getting a car out of impound for unpaid parking tickets. If they try something and it doesn’t work out, your child isn’t alone and they aren’t done with college or necessarily disadvantaged — they still have a chance to find their own path and succeed.
I should acknowledge that parts of the college lifestyle are high-stakes. Binge drinking, for example, continues to be problematic on campuses nationally, with about half of the college students who drink consuming alcohol in this especially dangerous manner, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Going above your child’s head by calling me to have alcohol banned from campus won’t solve this issue because your child needs to directly address and develop healthy drinking habits. You need to have proactive, open conversations with your student before he or she heads to campus, rather than reactive discussions on their behalf to address a problem.
Certainly, you can — and should — still be in touch with your child regularly. But respect their new freedom and any boundaries they may want to set. Try not to step in for little things and build toward not stepping in for big things. If you continue to swoop in and solve all of their problems, big or small, your child won’t have the tools necessary to thrive on their own. If and when a problem does come up that tests your new resolve, don’t reach for the phone to call me first. Instead, listen to your child’s issue, ask questions, and coach them through it, if need be. In the long run, it’ll work out better for all of us.
The transition to college is your chance to encourage safe risk-taking and self-advocacy. Instead of being a helicopter, be a sounding board and allow them to have an authentic college experience. They’ve earned it, and their future life and career successes depend on it.
Jonathan Gibralter is president of Wells College in Aurora, N.Y.
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