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Dealing with helicopter parents

image of Helicopter Parent by Daniel Yowell

Helicopter Parent by Daniel Yowell

Midterms are here, and with them come desperate calls to find ways to boost lagging grades. Of course, not all these calls are coming from students. More and more parents are jumping into the fray and taking on their children’s battles.

When it comes to dealing with these “helicopter parents” who tend to hover, University Professor and Chair of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Ani Yazedjian offers some advice to University personnel – educate before you react.

“The culture has definitely changed over the years,” said Yazedjian, who studies college students’ adjustment and achievement. “There is now a protracted transition to adulthood. A generation ago, 18 meant being an adult, yet research finds most young people now do not feel like they are adults until they are in their mid- to late-20s.”

That shift is reshaping the role of parents. “The longer it takes children to grow up, the longer the expectation of parenting,” she said. “And we are talking about a set of parents who have been actively involved in their children’s lives since infancy. They expect to continue to act on behalf of their children’s emotional well-being.”

Actions from parents can be frustrating, especially for faculty and staff who are unused to parents swooping in when their children have problems. Yazedjian advises personnel to take a moment to understand the impetus behind the action, and offers some insights to commonly heard complaints of helicopter parents.

‘I have a right to know my child’s grade.’
Parents who inquire about grades may not realize their children are covered under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. “Students may not feel like adults, but legally they are adults. And their course performance is not something faculty can discuss with parents,” said Yazedjian. “We have to teach parents what is legal, and not legal, for us to share.”

‘My kid says you are just out to get him.’

“Parents might have heard only one side of the story,” said Yazedjian, who noted when parents question their child about a low grade, they might hear a response that the professor is “out to get them” or unnecessarily strict in grading. “What they are not hearing is that the student missed the two classes where the paper was explained, or that the student failed to follow the instructions for the paper. But this is a perfect chance to have parents help a child find and understand the resources they need to be successful.”

‘We pay your salary.’
Faculty and staff know state support is shrinking, which translates to less support for students. “Parents are often footing more of the bill for education,” she said. “With that comes an expectation that parents are paying for a service, and therefore should receive an immediate response to complaints.”

‘A “C” is not an acceptable grade for my child.’
“Today’s students have grown up in a world where they are not given opportunities to fail, where everyone gets a ribbon for trying,” said Yazedjian, noting failing is not seen as a chance to learn, but a pit from which one cannot emerge. “Parents think they are saving their children from failure if they intervene, but in doing so, they might be denying their children a tremendous learning opportunity or life lesson.”

 

image of Ani Yazedjian

University Professor and Chair of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Ani Yazedjian

Getting through to helicopter parents 
Education is key when it comes to helicopter parents, said Yazedjian. “Being in contact with parents can present an opportunity to educate them about the appropriate amount of involvement during the college years,” she said. Yazedjian offered some tips for faculty and staff to get the message across to parents without losing their cool.

Avoid being defensive
“I’ve had my share of parents who call, and not all have been very nice,” said Yazedjian, “but perhaps the worst thing you can do is respond defensively. It only makes the situation worse.” She advises faculty and staff to remember that parents are generally reacting to the idea that their child is being threatened. “Any parent will naturally respond strongly when they feel their child is in danger or wronged. The best approach is to disarm the situation.”

Avoid the ‘butt out’ mentality
Don’t assume it’s only parents who want a high level of involvement, said Yazedjian. “College students today want parents to be involved, and are many times initiating that involvement. It’s not seen as intrusion.” She added when parents call, it can be a perfect opportunity to ask why the students are not taking the initiative themselves, rather than assuming the parents are butting in where they are not wanted.

Make parents part of the solution
“Supportive parents can have a positive impact on a student’s success,” said Yazedjian, suggesting parents can be encouraged to still be there to support the child, but offer a more independent approach. “When a parent calls, it may be the perfect time to talk to them about coaching their children to make the calls themselves, or discussing different strategies that might enable children to solve the problem on their own,” she said.

Faculty and staff can offer guidance when the beat of the helicopter-parent blades feel close, noted Yazedjian. “College is a time for parents to renegotiate their relationship with their child in a way that allows them to stay connected while also allowing their child more independence and autonomy. When parents contact us, we have the opportunity to encourage them to be part of their children’s lives in a more effective way.”

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