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In Praise of Helicopter Parents

01/07/2014 12:30 pm ET | Updated Mar 09, 2014
  • Kathleen Reardon Professor Emerita, USC Marshall School; Author, 'The Secret Handshake' and 'Shadow Campus'

How many investors drop their money at the doorsteps of businesses and say, "I don't know you personally from Adam, but you have a good reputation so I'm sure you'll do the right thing with this wheelbarrow full of money"?

Yet many well-meaning parents do just that when they send their children off to college. Who wants to be labeled a "helicopter parent"? Like "soccer mom," the term has a host of derogatory connotations. Fearful of being labeled or denying their progeny independence, parents leave one of their family's most important investments in the hands of educational institutions that may not be up to the task.

Thousands of young people head off to college ready, able, and willing to do all they must in order to succeed. They score high on self-efficacy and have stellar early and secondary education experiences under their belts. For them, a campus of 25,000 students, living in a dorm with a computer-selected roommate, losing the company of long-time friends, and plunging into college-level work are welcome challenges. When they do need help, they seek it and keep on asking until they get it.

In other words, the assertive, resilient ones usually do fine. If your children are such capable achievers, you can stop reading now. Most teens and even young adults, however, aren't so fortunate. Their frontal lobes are far from mature. They aren't ready for some of the challenges they'll face at college. Unless they seek and find academic and emotional support, at least during the first two years, they're likely to do a mediocre job or even fail.

If you've attended any college orientations, you may have heard that students must take their futures into their own hands. That's fine. Then comes, "But if they don't come to us early, there is nothing we can do. They will fail."

Excuse me? Just a minute! You mean to say that my family is going to spend a fortune at your institution and he or she has to find you? And he or she has to do this early and often, even if inclined to over-optimism, fear of failure, has dropped the ball and can't find it, or just doesn't want to seem like a "whiner."

You have to wonder whether the term "helicopter parent" has gained popularity in part because more and more colleges and universities have become businesses first and foremost. As such, many keep their customers at arm's length. If so, all the more reason to be involved in making sure they get that costly education.

Lately, I have explained to my children that when it comes to higher education, their parents are active co-investors. Thus we expect regular reports both from the universities and from them. Otherwise, both can expect to hear from us.

There's no need to be on your children's backs or that of their colleges. But you needn't be left in the dark either. Sure, some people overdo it, but most don't. Your student's university should want to be in touch with you and should do an impressive job of it. If they do, you won't need to write or call, you'll simply receive updates.

Talk to your children about your mutual investment -- that overseeing it is not an affront to their independence, but rather a smart financial and success-enhancing move. Explain that once they've demonstrated the ability to go it alone, you're glad to bow out. When colleges offer them a chance to legally shut you out, which they must at a certain point, suggest to your children that they exert their independence in another way. When it comes to investing in their futures, times are tough, nothing is guaranteed and you are a team.

Kathleen also blogs here. Her latest book and debut fiction, Shadow Campus, is a mystery-thriller.

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