Over the next few weeks, millions of college students will be ether starting their college careers or returning to campus as upperclassmen in pursuit of their bachelor degrees. By now, most of us have heard of overprotective parents. A few years ago, this term was reinforced and came to a grinding, legal halt. In December 2012, Aubrey Ireland, a then 21-year-old music theater major at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati was successful in having a judge enforce a restraining order against her parents. According to Ireland, her parents would unexpectedly drop in on her, accused her of suffering from mental illness, promiscuity and would aggressively monitor her cell phone messages. The suit required that Ireland's parents had to stay at least 500 feet away from her and have no contact with her until September 2013.
While this particular case may be an extreme example of parental involvement, the fact is that phenomenon of helicopter parents seems to have become commonplace and increasingly more so over the past few decades. In fact, some parents have become so deeply embedded in the lives of their children that they have replaced the previous definition of helicopter parents and have become known as "snowplough" parents. From college campuses to workplaces, a number of parents have deeply imposed themselves into their children's lives even once they reach adulthood. The fact is that parents are well aware of the fact that they are snowplough parents and do not apologize for being so. Others are often unaware for their impositions and are in denial.
Regardless of awareness or cluelessness, the fact is that for some young adults, the level of constant monitoring from parents is frustrating, wearisome and in some cases, exhausting. While some parents see nothing wrong with this, a number of psychologists and other experts say that such smothering behavior can be problematic. According to Dr. Michael Zentman, director of the Adelphi Postdoctoral Program in Marriage and Couple Therapy, some parents fail to realize that by constantly intervening in their children's lives, that they may very well be hindering their maturation process and making them less self-sufficient, and such children eventually tend to grow to rely on their parents to tackle life's challenges for them.
According to a number of experts, the following are symptoms of helicopter/snowplough parents:
- Calling your college age child every single day
- Being in constant contact with administrators at your child school
- Acting as your child's secretary
- Settling grading disputes for your child with professors more than once
- Choosing courses for your children to take
- Taking blame if your child makes a mistake of their own doing
While there are undoubtedly other examples, these are just a few.
As someone who worked in an admissions office as graduate student assistant for one year in the 1990s, (I did paperwork, I did not interview students), I would frequently hear stories from admission officers about parents who would come in with their children and dominate the interview. These same parents were deciding what courses they (their children) should take, what their child should major or minor in, etc. In short, they acted as if they were the ones who were enrolling at the institution. It was a sad spectacle. In fact, I remember a story from a now former graduate student who took a job as an admission officer at a small liberal arts institution after graduating from college for a few years. He recited the story of a young woman whose mother literally remained on campus for the better part of a month to be near her daughter.
Yes, you heard me right! The parent lived in a nearby hotel but apparently came to campus and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with her daughter. You can imagine such a situation complicated the young woman's ability to begin acclimating to college life. Apparently, things got so bad that she (the young woman) went to the admissions office in tears begging admissions counselors to please get rid of her mother. Two days later, mom was gone. As bizarre as the story sounds, I have to say that I was all that surprised to hear such a tale.
Helicopter/Snowplough parenting became more prevalent in the era of "baby on board" signs, mandatory car seats, concerns and heightened fears of child abduction. During this time period there was a strong level of anxiety coupled with a greater sense of competitiveness. This phenomenon also increased as many children of baby boomer parents (those Americans born between 1946-1964) entered high school and college. There is no question that many more parents (particularly fathers) are much more involved in their children's lives than they were decades ago. This is particularly true in regards to middle- and upper-income parents.
In the era where "keeping up with the Joneses" has been replaced with "you better be making over six figures a year" (slightly exaggerated) to be considered important, many parents have been driven by an unprecedented fear that if they do not enroll their kids in $40,000 dollar per year preschools, SAT prep courses by fifth grade, provide their kids with homework tutors by six years of age, and lacrosse camps before they hit puberty, that their children are going to permanently be at a distinct disadvantage in life. Recently, there have been a few articles in mainstream publications discussing the latest phenomenon of certain parents who have began to act as snowplough parents for other people's children. Yep! They feel they have license to monitor and serve as guardians for other people's children. Will the madness ever end?
While any reasonable and decent parent is going to be concerned about the welfare and progress of their children, it is important that you let your kids grow up at some point. All of us as human beings are going to stumble along the way. It is often at these times that we often learn from our mistakes and rebound. In many cases, such experiences it makes us a little bit stronger and wiser. This is not to say that once a person's children turn 18, they should never lift a finger to help them ever again. That would be just as unwise and insane as well. There may very well be times when parents may have to and should intervene on their children's behalf even if they are adults. But truth be told, letting children spread their wings and start that path toward independence is one of the best lessons a parent can give a child. When I was a teenager, my mother, now deceased, told me and my siblings that "experience is the best teacher." Decades later and as a man who has entered early middle age, I can attest to the fact that she was correct.