Friday, July 16, 2010

Closeness vs. Helicoptering: Some Thoughts

Historiann wrote a post today - which also directs us all to a column over at Inside Higher Ed - about helicopter parents, and while I left a couple of comments over there, I find I have some more to say that's tangential and I thought I'd write about it over here.

I think that it is true that such conversations can devolve into a discussion of how "back when I was your age my parents left me to survive in the woods with no shoes!" or, well, perhaps not quite that, but it is possible that conversations about this go in that direction. And either it ends up being derisive of "those kids today" - who are immature, illiterate, dependent, and in all ways inferior to the mythical students of days gone by - or derisive of "those helicopter parents" - who can't allow their children to grow into adults, who smother, who interfere, etc.

I suppose the first thing that I want to say is that I don't want any conversation that happens here to devolve in those ways. And I also want to say that I don't believe that the comment thread over at Historiann's devolves that way, which is why it's been an interesting conversation to read.

But here's the thing. I think it's worth it to make a distinction between parents who are involved and engaged in their children's lives vs. parents who helicopter. I do think that there's a difference. Because, for example, I still talk to my mom at least once a week, and I'm 35 years old. Since leaving home, I have always talked to my mom at least weekly. That was the rule. In fact, when I've missed our regular weekly phone date without warning her in advance, she will call me over and over again to complain that I am not doing my duty as a daughter. (This is joking, but at the same time, there's always some truth behind joking, isn't there?)

But so anyway, I don't think that when people wonder about helicopter parents, or criticize the tendency to helicopter, that doing so necessarily means a rejection of closeness - or even friendship - between parents and children. I think instead it's a rejection of certain behaviors that effectively cripple a child's ability to function as an independent agent.

So, for example, it's great if a child wants to share information with her parents about the classes that she's taking and how she likes her professors or whatever. Maybe she even wants to show her parents things that she's done for her classes. That's all to the good, I'd say, in that it means that the child has emotional support in her academic endeavors. But what crosses a line is when the parent is controlling a student's relationship to her education - so, for example, insisting that a child pursue a particular major regardless of the student's talents, or telling the student what courses she should take, even though the parent may not be in the best position to understand the requirements for graduation or the difficulty level of the various classes he or she is mandating. (Those are the two examples that I have the most familiarity with as a college professor; my High School Best Friend, who teaches high school, has many more harrowing tales of parental helicoptering, most of which involve parents who encourage their children to act out against the teacher, who do their child's work for them, who try to force grade changes, who insist on meetings with higher-ups to try to destroy the teacher's career because their little darling should only get positive feedback and not constructive criticism - and yes, that last one was a recent thing that my HSBF had to deal with in a series of meetings and emails and whatever.)

Anyway, I guess what I think is this: I think that children really need their parents to be supportive of their educations. Yes, they can survive without that support, but students do better if they know that their parents are there for them when the going gets rough academically. But I think that by the time a student gets to college - and, really, I'd even say high school - "support" does not mean intervening in their academic lives for them. It means listening to your child - even helping your child to strategize about how he or she might handle what's happening independently - but it doesn't mean looking over their assignments or finding the information for them about how to accomplish a/b/c. I think that constant intervention on the part of the parent ultimately gets in the way of the parent being able to be an effective source of support for the child - because once the parent is intervening, it becomes about the parent, and not about the child, if that makes sense.

And I think the best example that I can think of where a parent of a student-type person supports effectively - although in the 21st century way of being very, very available to one's child - is when I think about BES and her parents. My dinner party the other night? It was BES, Mr. and Mrs. BES, and Mentor Colleague. See, BES does socialize with her parents, and they know the people in her life, and they are very involved in her life. But. When I was giving BES hell during her senior thesis, they were not calling me on the phone. They were not calling my chair, or the dean, or whomever, trying to make me stop hurting BES's feelings. While they were very supportive of BES, they also wanted her to live on her own, and they downsized into a 2 BR condo when she was in college. Yes, she can stay there every now and again, but it's not her childhood home and she can't just live with them. They were there for her emotionally during the process of applying to grad school, but they deferred to me and Mentor Colleague when it came to the actual nuts and bolts advice about how she should proceed, even when BES was freaking out.

Do you know why BES and her parents can be as close as they are (I think)? It's because they're not trying to live her life for her. Now, they are a heck of a lot more involved in her life than my parents were. And yes, she sometimes finds that smothering. But at the end of the day, they don't cross the line. Because they understand that their job is to support her into becoming an adult - not to manage her growth into adulthood, if that makes sense.

Now, can I imagine having had a dinner party with two of my former professors and my parents? No. I cannot imagine that. For a lot of reasons. But mainly because as close as I am to my parents, we don't socialize like friends. So in that way I'm envious of BES, that she does have that relationship with her parents. On the other hand, though, I'm not jealous, because I never feel smothered by my parents, and I never feel like they're in my business, and she does, a lot of the time. I guess the point is, while I have a very different experience from hers with my parents vs. the one she has with her parents, it's still all good. I'd never call her parents helicopters - I'd just call them loving. And that's what my parents are, too.

The point isn't that parents shouldn't be involved in the lives of their children. The point is that "involvement" doesn't mean "control." There's no one right way to parent. Of course not. But there are things that I think all teachers would say were crossing the line, in terms of how students develop academically and into adulthood. And so I think it might make sense for parents - whether they themselves are academically inclined (for there are certainly academics who end up helicoptering) or not - to pay attention to those complaints. Not because their identity as parents is being attacked, but because listening might help them to be closer to their kids.


Janice said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your distinction between involvement and control. My parents were always involved but didn't attempt to control me or my decisions about education. That was both helpful and good for our relationship.

Susan said...

This is a really useful distinction. I know many parents who are close to their children, and involved with their lives (and the research is pretty clear that closeness helps construct healthy adults) as opposed to helicopter parents who are trying to run their child's life. And there are lots of ways of being involved...

Anonymous said...

I largely agree here, although I would add one caveat, and this is more about your high school example than college, by which point I do think it is the student's responsibility to handle all problems except the most severe. My mother probably could have been labeled a helicopter parent in high school because she was constantly at my school and was very informed about what was going on. (She also made all my decisions about coursework but that's a different subject; she was extremely strict and overbearing and smothering.) But why do I think my mother's running interference with teachers was okay?

Because her biggest concern was that I wasn't getting the education I deserved, and most particularly, she was worried that I was being passed over for opportunities, or not taken seriously, because I was a student of color. There were at least two or three times when I actually had been passed over for things like gifted testing, presumably because of the color of my skin. (I realize these are tricky things to say about oneself b/c I was a young child and they were adults but I was well ahead of many of my peers my first years of schooling, pre-K through 2nd grade, and those I was on par with had already been identified as gifted.)

The other issue was teacher qualifications: this was worse in middle school but I had a few teachers in math and science who didn't know what they were doing and my mother wasn't having it.

What distinguishes her approach from helicopter parenting? She was harder on me than my teachers were. She never did my homework; if she looked over it, it was probably to make me redo it. A 98 out of 100 wasn't good enough because what happened to those two extra points, she'd always ask. There were a few times when she had the option to choose a teacher and she always chose the one with the reputation of being extremely challenging. So her aims weren't to make my life easier, just to make sure I wasn't being ignored.

I'm not making any statements about your friend, Dr. Crazy. I also had some exceptional high school teachers. But I think we all know that things aren't always right in schools and I do think parents should be involved enough to make sure their children aren't falling through the cracks, even if it requires a ton of effort.

Emily said...

Thanks for this, Dr. Crazy. It makes a very useful distinction between behavior that's unhealthy and behavior that's maybe generationally different, but not bad for all that.

Anonymous said...

I was like princess's parent. My kids' teachers thought I was "helicoptering" however being a public school insider, I knew the incompetent and slacker teachers from the good ones. I never had to get in the face of any good teachers but believe me I went to the top in disputes with the bad ones.

There is a definite difference between involvement and control.

Nice posting here.

Historiann said...

I suppose no one is willing to cop to being a Helicopter Parent. What looks like inappropriate involvement to outsiders probably feels like justified vigilance to the insiders.

I think your distinction here is a good one. Emotional support of an adult child is different from doing college yourself all over again through your child and seeing hir success as yours. (I wonder how many Helicopters haven't themselves been to college? I'm pretty sure it's something that only college grads feel empowered to do.)

Anonymous said...

My parents have totally ignored me my entire life and look how totally fucking awesome I turned out!

Anonymous said...

It's been interesting to watch my advisor and mentor walking this line, as their son was, this year, a freshman at the U we attend. And they come very, very close to helicoptering... and it's interesting to see it from their side. I don't think they crossed the line, but, well, interesting, and different than my family, in a number of ways.

[I also really wanted to take their son aside and say something like, "you don't have to tell your parents everything. or at least not while it's going on." ... but that's sort of the other side of their almost-helicoptering.]

Bardiac said...

I think you hit the mark here really well. My mother was a total helicopter while I was in high school. She volunteered at the school so that she'd hear immediately when I was in trouble. And then I'd get an earful after school.

When I went away to college, I gradually rebelled (it took a while), and given the distance, my mom didn't have nearly as much control. And then I left the country. But even today, if we're together, she feels the need to tell me to do whatever (wear a sweater, whatever).

And yet, she was really supportive about me going to school and going back to school. I think she's really conflicted about wanting to control me and being proud that I'm totally different than she is.

Anyway, I see my students with their parents, and even though I boggle that they don't want to rebel, when I listen, I realize that most of their parents AREN'T controlling. Instead, they're listening to their kids as much as telling them. And I think that means the students don't feel a need to rebel; they feel supported and as independent as they want to be.

But the occasional students really do seem to be rebelling against overcontrolling parents.

I don't see much helicopter parenting; what I do see is parents who get really involved because their child (son, often) is having real problems, often the sort of psychiatric problems that hit young adults with great harm.