Friday, March 28, 2008

Copter Parents Best Climb to a Higher Altitude by Dr. Alan Singer

If parents hover above their adult children and frequently swoop down to intervene on their behalf, how will those children mature and be responsible for themselves? And now, a new trend--submarine parents? This column was published in the 3/28/08 edition of the Home News Tribune

Hovering parents that install Web cameras in a child's college dorm room or accompany children to job interviews are referred to as "helicopter parents." How big a problem is this? It's hard to say. But getting parents to teach their children to be responsible for themselves is vital. If hovering parents frequently swoop down to run interference for their offspring, their children won't have an opportunity to grow up.

Recently, the 2007 Report of the National Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University) indicated that intervention by family members does not blunt student engagement, learning, and development during college. This optimistic data comes from more than 300,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 610 four-year colleges and universities. Helicopter parents, those in frequent contact and frequently intervening on behalf of their children, reported: Higher levels of engagement and more frequent use of deep-learning activities, greater gains on a host of desired college outcomes, and greater satisfaction with the college experience.

According to the survey, seven of 10 students communicated very often with at least one parent or guardian during the academic year. Electronic communication was more common than face-to-face. Further, 13 percent of first-year students reported a parent frequently intervened to help solve problems, with another 25 percent saying a parent sometimes intervened.

And what is the electronic communication device of choice? The cell phone. Dr. Graham Spanier, president of Penn State, in a lecture to the National Council on Family Relations observed, "The first thing that happens when a freshman moves into the dorm, is that he hooks up his computer. Next, his mother makes his bed." Spanier went on to explain that the most interesting trend of recent years is that there is no more crying when the parents leave, thanks to cell phones. Every freshman has one. In his own survey of Penn State students, he found that within 48 hours of drop-off at college, freshmen have spoken with a parent seven to eight times on average.

Dr. Bill Doherty of the University of Minnesota explained, "This is a serious problem that extends into the workplace, when HR professionals have to field calls from Mom and Dad about Samantha's job interview, performance or benefit package." When I questioned Doherty on whether college students really need any parental supervision, he stressed that the human brain does not mature until age 25 and it is a good idea for Mom and Dad to look for signs of trouble and be prepared to intervene. Signs of trouble include slipping grades or a break in the regular schedule of communication. "But when it comes to handling their college course work and relationships with teachers and friends," added Doherty, "this is a time for kids to do their own negotiating, with Mom and Dad as mentors."

Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman does not think helicopter parenting is a big problem, writing to me, "The awareness of what the kids of whatever age are doing is not control, just monitoring." Pittman does not object to parents knowing what kids are doing, as long as parents don't think they need to control it. He sees no problem, as long as the copter is far enough above and concluded, "A parent is not a probation officer. Rather than trying to catch kids misbehaving at this age and distance, we talk with them. If we make that process pleasant enough, they'll talk back."

I wonder if I am also a helicopter parent. Judge for yourself after reading this anecdote. Recently, while in Florida with my family, I suggested to my 17-year-old that we try an introductory scuba course at Pennekamp State Park in the Keys. I experienced the wonders of diving in Eilat, Israel, and wanted her to have a chance. Before I knew it, we were 35 feet below the surface with our instructor. I began to panic, but not about myself. What had I dragged my daughter into for the sake of having a good time? We human beings are land-based creatures who don't breathe compressed air from a bottle. I couldn't appreciate the magnificent reef, because I was too nervous about my daughter.

There's no talking under water — only sign language. I couldn't understand why my daughter kept giving me the OK sign. How could she possibly be OK 35 feet deep, surrounded by parrot fish, snapper, and barracuda that swam within inches of us? My hyperventilation resulted in our instructor cutting the first dive short because (no surprise) I was running low on air. As we surfaced, I expected to bear the brunt of her fear, disappointment and possibly tears. Instead, she described it as "exhilarating and awesome."

My paranoia about her well-being was entirely my agenda, not hers. Thankfully, we had a terrific second dive together that I enjoyed as a normal person. How big a problem is "submarine parenting"? It's hard to say.

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's blog or e-mail him at "Be Counted" columnists are members of the public.