The perils and perks of parental involvement
By Alison Molea-LaVigne, LCSW-R
Among this year’s significant additions to the English language is menopauch (a middle aged man’s beer gut) and ageorexia (the fear of growing old). Those of us who argue with our children over whose turn it is to play “Guitar Hero” may fall into the category of peerant (a parent who wants to be their child’s peer). British author Ben Schott included the words in his 2008 almanac Schotts Miscellany.
Another term Schott highlights is helicopter parent, coined for parents who over-identify with the success of their child, as well as parents who believe children to be an extension of themselves. They try to live through them, monitoring their every move and choice.
Parenting to the max
Sarah Briggs in her piece entitled “Confessions of a Helicopter Parent” wrote, “I was there in the school principal’s office putting in my requests for specific teachers to ensure that my children would get the best education possible. I have constantly monitored deadlines for them, whether it’s for completing a homework assignment, filing a college application or lining up a summer job.” Briggs might even be called a Black Hawk, the term for a military helicopter, meant for parents who cross the line from merely being overly enthusiastic about their child’s success to acting unethically, such as writing their child’s college admission essays.
There are reports of parents contacting an employer to find why their son or daughter did not get a job and parents flying cross-country to confront college professors about their young adult’s grades. Briggs sums it up best when she describes helicopter parents as having made this nurturing “an extreme sport.”
How did we get there?
The term became popular in the late 1990s as college administrators noticed more frequent and dire attempts by parents to handle their children’s educational experience, through both increased contact and complaints. One theory is that the cost of higher education has more than doubled since 1967, making parents feel the need to protect their investment.
Other theories? Psychotherapist Gordon Hudson sees cases in which parents overindulge their kids because of their own inadequate upbringing. They promise their children a better life than they had. In other cases, parents try to protect or defend their children in difficult situations because they feel like their reputations as parents are being attacked.
Sarah Briggs discusses the rise of cell phone use as a culprit in the growth of helicopter parenting, calling it “the world’s longest umbilical cord.” Helicopter parents reportedly speak with their college-aged teens at least once daily, often calling to wake them for their morning classes.
Negative effects of hovering
Parental involvement can be too much of a good thing. Author Kevin Wheeler in How to Deal with Overprotective Mom and Dad states: “Since birth, these young folks have been protected, chaperoned, coached, and guided by their parents. Rather than shun parental influence, as most Baby Boomers did, they expect and even embrace the close relationship they have with their parents. They look to their parents to guide them in whatever choices they make and often call mom or dad to get their advice on even trivial matters.”
Educators fear the consequences that can result from this overprotection. Helicopter parents may not be allowing their children to fail or succeed on their own, a necessary part of growing up. Roger Tripp, a professional counselor writes: “If parents step in too early in problems or social situations, children do not have the opportunity to gain necessary social skills that are normally developed during adolescence.” Consequently, the kids will grow up unprepared to survive, mentally or physically, in the world.
On the brighter side
Collegeboard.com cites a recent study correlating a high level of parental involvement with a positive college experience. It says there is mounting evidence that parents should take more rather than less interest in their children’s education. The Harvard Family Research Project found that teens whose parents play an active role do better in school and are more likely to enroll in college.
Unfortunately, some parents tend to become less involved when their children become more independent. Middle and high school years can be the most taxing for some students, and many struggle to navigate this territory without help. The College Board and the Art & Science Group found that almost 30 percent of college-bound seniors surveyed wished their parents did more to help them look for and apply to colleges; six percent wanted their parents to do less.
Strike a balance
Parents need to recognize the needs maturing teens have for practice when it comes to making their own choices. As a parent, try thinking of yourself as a coach. You’re there to provide structure, give advice and serve as a role model, but it’s your child who needs to step up to the plate. Instead of keeping track of deadlines yourself, for example, work as a team to set up a calendar or weekly planner and let your child take charge of meeting those deadlines.
In Mom Needs an A, Dr. Patricia Somers says: “When your child gets in high school, gradually give her more responsibility and see how she handles it—if there are problems, you can discuss them. Resist the temptation to step in and take over. Have your son go ahead and tackle some of the issues that are outside his comfort zone. You’re not going to be able to be immersed in every detail of the child’s life until the first day of college and then all of a sudden drop him off at the curb and go on about your affairs. You have to start letting go in increments before that point.”
Hover in the right places
I see teens and young adults on both sides of this scenario. Some say they have overbearing parents who don’t let them breathe without judgment or comment. Others say they feel their parents have no interest in them at all. What they have in common is that they want attention from their parents—attention that is not related to an external goal. They want to spend quality time—cooking, eating, laughing, being listened to without judgment—not having every moment be involved with a lecture about papers, tests, grades, projects and college visits, the laundry, dishes, the car and the cell phone bill (save these for later). Believe it or not, they want structure and discipline and accountability.
When our children are small, we can control when they eat, we can strap them into the stroller and take a walk, and we can put them down for a nap. Eventually there comes a time when we cannot control the environment we send them into. We have to let go. As Hodding Carter said, we give our children two gifts: roots and wings.
Alison Molea-LaVigne is a clinical social worker in private practice. She works with individuals, families, couples, teens and children on a wide range of issues. She is also an Independent Consultant for Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 222.7613.