Helicopter parents might hinder students, not help


Alison Trude tells her mom everything.

The two call each other about three to four times… Alison Trude tells her mom everything.

The two call each other about three to four times per week, and they usually talk for at least 30 minutes.

“I always go to my parents, especially my mom, for advice,” Trude, an undergraduate student majoring in Spanish and psychology, said. “My parents have always supported me and my decisions.”

According to Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s vice provost and dean of students, “Ideally, parents of college students should balance caring for the child and allowing the child to move through the process of adulthood.”

A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests, however, that 60 to 70 percent of parents of college students are involved in a new trend known as “helicopter parenting.”

What is believed to be the first scholarly research on parents who hover too closely over their children is based on more than 50 interviews with officials from 10 four-year universities across the country.

Though the helicopter parent is often thought of as from the middle and upper classes, the research finds that helicopter parenting appears to cross not only socioeconomic status, but also racial and ethnic lines.

“The notion of the term ‘helicopter parenting’ is that parents are always hovering and swooping down to rescue the child, as opposed to being an assistant,” Humphrey said.

These parents love their children and want them to succeed. But not everyone thinks that they are helping.

“Parents who do everything for their child send a message of incompetence,” Sharon Nelson-Le Gall, a psychology professor at Pitt, said. “They, in turn, rear a person that deems their own actions ineffective, that is less achievement-oriented and that exhibits low self-esteem.”

“Everything” includes everything from to-do list items, such as laundry, checking e-mail, checking grades and checking account balances, to major decisions, such as choosing a roommate and a major.

When high school students make the transition into college, they face the developmental task of establishing autonomy emotionally and financially.

“Often, it is a difficult and touchy transition into adulthood,” Nelson-Le Gall said.

The college years are like a “lengthened period of limbo,” in which many students are financially dependent and not prepared to function independently, she said. During this period, parents should offer help in a way that increases learning by entitling their child to handle any situation and encouraging their child to seek out resources.

That is what many parents fear most: handing over entitlement.

“If you give help where none is needed or wanted, you send a message of incompetence,” Nelson-Le Gall said. Although, in new situations, it is good to point out general guidelines, she added.

With the college costs soaring, many parents cannot afford failure in a world that is becoming more and more competitive, leaving little room for making mistakes.

“If you think an error is a sign of weakness or shows a lack of intelligence, you become increasingly afraid of making mistakes in order to avoid imperfection,” Nelson-Le Gall said.

Mistakes happen – and making mistakes is a crucial part of development. A person has the opportunity to work on building competence and attaining independence – just by making a mistake.

“A mistake is an opportunity to acquire more skills,” she said.

“Roll with the punches – and learn from them.”

Many parents believe that by not letting their college-aged children make mistakes, they are helping them to gain an edge; however, they are holding them back.

“Help that does not increase confidence is harmful,” Nelson-Le Gall said. “Parents should help in a way that enables their children to solve the problem again in the future.”

A secular movement beginning in the 1960s spurred “helicoptering,” according to Nelson-Le Gall. With the change in the relationship between the family and the school, parents became increasingly involved.

“In years past, there was not so much involvement, but the elementary and secondary educational systems today have positioned parents to be so involved,” Humphrey said.

When a child leaves home to go to college, it is hard for parents to make that disconnect in an ever-connected world, she said.

Cell phones and e-mail foster strong bonds in today’s smaller families, experts say.

“And you’re telling parents to shut it off?” Nelson-Le Gall said. “Parents just don’t turn off because their child turns 18.”

“Incidents, like the tragedy that occurred Monday at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, incite an instinctive need in parents to stay close to protect their child,” Humphrey said.

One way that the University helps protect the student body is with the blue safety phones scattered around campus.

“I have never had to use one of these blue phones, and I do not know anybody who has,” Gary Sanderson said. “I feel safe here.”

He closes the blue phone box cautiously and looks toward Schenley Plaza.

Sanderson, a Pitt Pathfinder, is leading a tour group of three, a prospective student, her father and her younger sister.

A sophomore in high school, Colleen plans to major in international relations. Today she has traveled with her family from Connecticut to tour Pitt’s campus.

Her father, a Pitt alumnus, points out Frick Fine Arts building and the Carnegie Library and Museum.

“You’ve been there before,” he says, nudging his daughter.

He mentions home plate to Sanderson and the tour continues through Posvar Hall.

Aside from the atmosphere, Trude said Pitt has other merits.

“I chose to come to Pitt because it doesn’t shove academics down your throat,” Trude said.

“My parents told me that anywhere I chose to go to college they would support me.”

She was accepted at four other leading universities and was awarded a full-tuition Honors College scholarship to attend Pitt.

“Neither of my parents went to college, so it was important to them that I go,” said Trude, an only child. “They trusted me to make the right decision.”

She remembers that her mom cried on the day she moved into the freshman dorms – “but, then again, I did, too!”

The summer after her freshman year, Trude studied abroad in Spain.

“They were nervous about my decision to go to Spain,” she said. “But they said, ‘If you think it is a good idea and that it will improve your Spanish and that the timing is beneficial, then do it.'”

Trude does research at two psychology labs at the Learning Research and Development Center and is looking into graduate school. Her parents would like her to stay close.

Still, Trude is not “totally independent” of her parents. They pay her rent and support her financially so that she does not have to work.

“My parents give me a lot of freedom, but they also support me,” she says. “I think it is a good balance, and I value the relationship I have with them.”