The Cure for Helicopter Parents of College Students

By on October 4, 2007

With the start of a new school year at universities and colleges in the US, there have been a flurry of news reports and newly released books discussing the problems that “helicopter parents” are causing. These parents are so named because they are still hovering around trying to take care of their students who are attending college.

But, it is not just a parent problem. It is a child problem, too. For many of these college freshmen, this is the first extended time away from family. If they are not used to using a coin laundry, locating and taking public transportation or foraging for food on their own, freshman year becomes a struggle to learn about living alone along with studying and adjusting to a new social structure.

Some students are natural adventurers, but others are not. The result is a very homesick son or daughter who just wants to give up and come home. Meanwhile, the parents, who really do want their children to succeed in college and in life, offer to help in ways that can range from minor to ridiculous. 

Paul Wruble in his blog at TuitionCoach.com suggests a solution that is straightforward and makes enormous sense. Your child needs practice being away from home. During high school (and even before), your student should participate in summer camps, student trips, visit distant relatives and go on trips with others. 

Any activity (it doesn’t have to be expensive) that allows your child to learn about living away from your immediate home environment offers an opportunity for your son or daughter to test drive independence. By little bits, your child gains confidence and, seeing that confidence,  you let go.

Summer camps or student travel programs are too expensive? What about marching band, chorus, speech and debate, science clubs, robotics clubs, sports and other school and community organizations that have trips funded by contributions from the community? And, of course, there is Scouting, Campfire, YMCA/YWCA camps and activities. Many organizations have scholarships for students whose families can’t afford the fees.

Let your child find the program that excites him or her. Don’t do the work, but don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer.

One of the skills my son and I worked on while visiting some college campuses and attending college interviews was using public transit. How do you look up schedules? How do you purchase a ticket from the machine or add money to ticket? How do you use the airline self-service kiosk?

We didn’t rent a car while we were in Boston. We walked everywhere except for the taxi to and from airport. In Pittsburgh, our hotel had a shuttle that dropped us off and picked us up.

Right before making the final decision on which college to attend, Number One Son took solo trips to two campuses on the East Coast. One trip was to attend a special event for newly admitted students. The college arranged for sharing dorm rooms with current students and had planned meals and events.

The other was a solo trip to a campus because he could not make their planned event. My son arranged to meet the brother of a friend who is attending that college and toured the campus on his own. He stayed on his own in a motel close to campus. An important note for parents: some states (New York in this case) have rules about students under the age of 18 staying alone in a motel room. I had to fax a permission letter to the manager of the motel before my son arrived.

The airport in upstate New York was fogged in when he arrived at that last destination, so they landed at another airport and traveled the rest of the way by bus.  The trip back also had its weather problems. My son learned first hand how difficult travel could be to that location.  He eventually decided that he wanted a less remote college.

None of this made saying goodbye at the airport on August 31st any easier for me or my husband when it was time for our son to begin college on the East Coast. But, we knew that he had done this trip before and could do it again.

About CK Wilde

CK Wilde has been writing about topics close to her heart--family caregiving and multigenerational families--since 2007. She grew up in a multigenerational household and understands the positive and negative aspects of close family living. CK believes that caring for her father during the last two years of his life and raising two terrific young men have been her most important accomplishments.

2 Comments

  1. ckwilde

    October 6, 2007 at 12:46 pm

    I’m aware from various news stories that companies are encountering Gen Y kids who expect everything right now. But in my experience as a parent and volunteer for a variety of children’s activities, the cause of the problem is not self esteem messages. This type of kid doesn’t feel confident or competent.

    The cause is neglect by parents in high profile jobs who don’t have time to nurture and train their own kids. They don’t have time to volunteer. Some private schools in our area have “after school care” for elementary and high school students until 7 p.m. So the kids are just modeling the behavior they see at home — cranky and demanding. Then, when something doesn’t work they fall back on Mom or Dad who will push to get their way because that is the problem solving pattern in the family.

    CK

  2. Kristen

    October 6, 2007 at 11:49 am

    CK, it’s interesting you bring this up b/c as a person who’s been involved in hiring college grads, at one unnamed company they called them the “baby-bombsters” a slur on baby boomers + monsters I suppose – but a rather derogatory reference to children coming into the job market who think that everything should be handed to them (and if not they can call mom/dad for a bail out), they don’t understand they don’t get 6figure jobs out of school and starting at the bottom of the totem pole. Luckily they weren’t prevalent, but they definitely exist and we think too many years of telling them that they’re special and can be anything they want, which isfine, but not grounding them in real-world skills that make or break them in the real world.