Why I’m Not Cheering the “Helicopter Parents Have Neurotic Kids” Study

Hi Readers! A bunch of you have forwarded this story, from livescience.com, that I’ve been mulling for days:

‘Helicopter’ Parents Have Neurotic Kids, Study Suggests

The piece is about a study of 300 college freshmen that found the students who are “dependent, neurotic and less open,” may have their over-involved, over-worried, helicopter parents to thank for crippling them. It even went on to say that  “in non-helicoptered students who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents, so-called ‘free rangers,’ the effects were reversed.” [Boldface, mine.]

So here’s our movement, being scientifically legitimized, and even called by its rightful name — the one coined right here! So why am I not jumping up and down and shouting, “Told ya so!”? Two reasons:

First, the story includes three of the questions that were asked of the students to determine if their parents were the “helicopter” type.

Participants had to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me,” “On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted,” and “If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me.”

By those criteria, I pretty much qualify as a helicopter mom. I have spoken to my son’s school when he was having problems. (As recently as  yesterday!) And I am pretty sure that if and when, God willing, we drop our kids off at college, we will help them unpack and then stay the night in a nearby hotel before bidding them goodbye in the morning. Just like my parents did when they dropped me off at school. What’s the big deal?

As for constant contact, I’m not sure how often we’ll call back and forth, but I just can’t see that as a black and white, helicopter vs. free-range issue. In my book I do suggest leaving your cell phone at home some times, so your kids can’t call and ask you to solve all their problems or make all their decisions — e.g., “Can I have a snack before I start my homework?” But if they call from college every couple of days to say hi, is that fatal to their characters or damning of ours? I don’t think so. Which brings me to —

Point #2: Who says it is the parents and only the parents who shape a child’s entire personality and outlook on life? That’s the very same belief — parents as Michelangelo, kids as clay — that motivates helicopter parents in the first place. If you really see your child as yours and yours alone to create or destroy, naturally you are going to worry about optimizing every single moment. That’s a big burden.  Every parental choice looms large because it is seen through the lens of MAKING or BREAKING the child. One of the cardinal rules in my book is to let go of the idea we CAN control  everything about our kids. As if there’s no such thing as luck, genes, other relatives, teachers, siblings, the neighborhood, quirks and a million other influences.

A study like this — a study like so many that academia seems to churn out on a daily basis, pointing fingers and purporting to be able to boil down an entire person to how good or bad a job his parents did raising him — is so  simplistic as to be meaningless.

Which is not to say I still don’t believe wholeheartedly in the idea of giving our kids more freedom and responsibility and hovering less. I do think it is great for them — and great for us. But we are not the only influence on our children, and one of the reasons parents are being driven so CRAZY these days is because everyone seems ready to blame us for any problem our kids ever evidence or endure.

Yes, it’s nice to see Free-Range Kids endorsed in the parenting-obsessed media. It’s too bad the parenting-obsessed media is still part of the problem.   — Lenore


53 Responses to Why I’m Not Cheering the “Helicopter Parents Have Neurotic Kids” Study

  1. Hethr June 10, 2010 at 12:43 am #

    I’m quite obviously not a helicopter mom, the whole thing is just crazy to me. I recently watched a video at school about helicopter parents — talking about how colleges and even some employers are now interviewing children WITH THEIR PARENTS THERE….good God, what the hell??

    I tried to find it — but this is close enough…starts getting interesting at 5:30


  2. KateNonymous June 10, 2010 at 12:56 am #

    I’m a Gen-Xer who talked to my parents every other day when I was in college. Heck, I talked to them every day for a large portion of my adulthood, before my husband and I got married. Why shouldn’t I? We all like each other! They were very involved in my childhood (and my brother’s), but they raised us to be independent, capable adults.

    I think this is part of a larger issue: our all-or-nothing society. There is no room for middle ground, even though the real answers usually lie there. So “Free Range Kids” must be the polar opposite of “Helicopter Parenting”–it must advocate letting your children grow up with no supervision or guidance, as opposed to orchestrating everything. Never mind that is is, in fact, the middle ground of moderation. We’re rarely willing to acknowledge that as an option.

  3. Dot Khan June 10, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    One problem with most studies that make it into the news is the results can be different depending on what questions are asked and their order. Many people can’t tell the difference between junk science and a peer reviewed bias free study. Sometimes another news story will come out the next week with a different conclusion.
    As an example, many people have heard that a lot of kids go missing but few outside of Free Rangers have bothered to dig deeper to know that that inflated figures includes a mere 115 stereotypical abductions.

  4. Rachel June 10, 2010 at 12:59 am #

    Lenore you are my new idol. That is the other side of it — the make or break idea — the myth that as parents we’re running a controlled experiment with no other variables but OUR momentous decisions over sunscreen and sippy cups. The nurture side of the age old nature/nurture debate did not used to apply solely to what went on in the nuclear family. The downsizing of the family unit has led to incredible stress for the few role models (usually just the parents) who are left. I often look at these upper-middle-class moms who can barely manage to put clothes on and think–they don’t have any help, for anything. No one else is cooking meals, no cousins to play with the kids while they shower, no grandparents nearby to watch them for an hour. Spread out families, generations separated from each other, the end of extended families–it takes an enormous toll on our kids. And on us. Not only the extra hands around but would we have been SO overwhelmed with what to expect when we were expecting if we’d seen aunts, uncles, cousins etc. go through it before? If we ourselves had helped around the house a bit more instead of running off to art class?

  5. WendyW June 10, 2010 at 1:34 am #

    I think all the questions are too open to interpretation. Under certain parameters they all could be helicopter or not.

    I take the question about parents contacting a school official to mean contacting an official at the college (the question was asked of college freshmen). There’s a huge difference between dealing with elem. and middle schools on your child’s behalf, and dealing with a college- especially if it’s about minor things like roommates and schedules.

    As for phone calls, we also speak with our adult daughter several times a week. But if we don’t hear from her we’re not paranoid and calling to check up on her. It’s just the normal flow of our relationship. It’s not asking if they speak to their parents that frequently, but if they parents would call to check up on them, which is a reflection of a different mentality.

    The staying nearby I think is more a reflection of distance and budget than of helicoptering. My daughter attended a school less than an hour from home, of course we didn’t stay overnight. If we had had a full day’s drive to get there, we would have needed to stay. As a question about helicoptering, I would ask if they stayed for absolutely no other reason than to be sure the child was settled.

    Maybe the actual survey had the questions written out in more detail, or they had the opportunity to have them clarified verbally. But regardless, I think it was probably the number of questions each child answered affirmatively that made the correlation, not any one specific question. Any family might reflect one or two potential helicopter “symptoms” but it would be the families that reflect the entire gamut that would produce the neurotic kids.

  6. Kai June 10, 2010 at 1:41 am #

    Your child is what, in Junior High? Of course you contact the school for him. This is a question of college students. A student who is an adult away at college should never have the parent contact the school on his behalf. It’s reasonable to do with a child, but once you’re in college, it’s your responsibility.
    Just as a parent should never be calling a job much more serious than a paper route. If you’re mature enough to have a real job, then you should be mature enough to solve your own problems.
    Would you really call your son’s college when he’s old enough?

    As for the calling between each other, I don’t read this as ‘if you talk frequently you are helicoptering’. I read it as “If my parents didn’t hear from me for two days, they’d freak out and call to make sure I was okay” not “if my parents didn’t hear from me for a bit, they’d call to say hi”.
    Though I do think calling every day or two would be ridiculous. Why did you go away if you’re going to be *that* tethered?

  7. Davonia June 10, 2010 at 1:41 am #

    Actually dealing with the college could come from the fact that many of the students need to submit their parents’ financial info to get financial aid. If someone had questions as to my income, I would rather answer those than have my children relay it. It would be like playing a game of telephone and the info could get all messed up.

  8. Rich Wilson June 10, 2010 at 1:47 am #

    I’m with WendyW on contacting school officials. There’s a big difference between contacting elementary or high school officials and college. I work at a university with an average enrolled GPA of over 3.8. And you’d be stunned at the cases at which mommy and daddy feel the need to step in and do things on behalf of their child, and not just “when he was having problems” but because they seem to think their child can’t do it. Or maybe they know their child can’t do it, but they’d better learn real fast, because those 4 years go by fast, and then it’s welcome to the real world.

    Poor study, sure, but if you think you need to step in and make sure your college age kid is registered in the right classes, you’ve failed in raising a capable college age human.

  9. Eric June 10, 2010 at 1:50 am #

    I agree 97% of what you posted Lenore. The only thing I have a difference in opinion of, or rather how I view (and not necessarily disagree with), is that yes, parent’s aren’t the only influence in a child’s life. But they are the primary influence, especially in the first few years. IMO, these are the years where children start to take on their personality, based on what they have been exposed to. If in these years, parents expose their children to their own constant worries and fears, they are teaching their children that’s the correct way of dealing with that situation they come across. If not corrected, it becomes ingrained in them as normal behaviour/reactions. Then in turn, as they get older and start interacting with others, they become hesitant, even confused if what others are telling them contradicts with what they have learned from their parents. And most kids in this situation, tend to hold back and be more reserved in their interactions. They don’t want to be the odd man out, but at the same time they don’t want to go against their parents or even their own beliefs (based on what they have learned from their parents).

    But yes, helping your children deal with problems isn’t wrong (keyword…helping, and not fighting their battles for them). Nothing wrong with spending the night just in case your kid needs something before you leave. Especially if the drive back home will take hours. And there’s definitely nothing wrong with keeping in touch, as long as it’s not because you are monitoring your child. You call to see how they are, and what’s new. NOT because your worried. Really though, at this stage in your child’s life, they deserve that trust, and should be able to fend for themselves (except with the occasional cash flow problem, lol). If they aren’t, then something went wrong in their parenting along the way.

  10. Dave June 10, 2010 at 1:52 am #

    Lenore thanks for the clear thinking. It is so easy to find someone who agrees with your conclusions and run with them. Ultimately this is not helpful. Bad science proves nothing and when people punch holes in the research it can have a negative effect on how the results of viewed.

    We want parents to lighten up and give their children some space to mature. So glad that you are fighting the right battle but are doing so without having to build your case on bad research just to prove your point.

    Keep up the good work. My daughter has become a fan and is not only raising her son free range but is speaking up against over protection.

  11. Elizabeth June 10, 2010 at 1:58 am #

    “There’s a big difference between contacting elementary or high school officials and college.”

    No kidding. My mom asked the pre-school daily how I was doing; spoke to my elementary teachers frequently; went to parent-teacher night at middle and high-school and spoke to them regarding specific problems I had in middle school. I’m not sure she ever spoke to anyone at my college.

    She did drop me off (I didn’t have a car) but left the same night. I’m amazed at the idea of staying the night. I guess it depends how far the child is going to college. If it’s a day’s drive, I can totally see that. If not… wow.

  12. Elizabeth June 10, 2010 at 2:01 am #

    “Though I do think calling every day or two would be ridiculous. Why did you go away if you’re going to be *that* tethered?”

    I think this is hugely a personality thing. I know people who talk to their parents every day and who are very independent in their decision making. They just really like their families. They consult with their parents like friends. Other people talk to a sibling, others, a friend, still others, someone they pay like a counselor.

    I think this question of all questions is the least indicative of how “free-range” a child is. I call home a couple times a week. My mom needs to see my babies. Before that, it was once a month. But my sister calls daily. She was the same with both of us. It’s just our personalities.

  13. Mika June 10, 2010 at 2:15 am #

    I’m so glad to hear you say this! My kids are really little and it is hard for me to fathom college -but my aunt, who is a second mom to me has 3 kids in college right now (bless her) and I don’t think she is very helicopter at all -she would never contact the school I don’t think. BUT they call or text her every 2-3 days and she did help them all get settled in their rooms.

    I don’t know what I would do -I’m from the Caribbean and my mom stuck me on a plane to another Caribbean island (where I did have family) I was met by girls from my dorm/sorority and told I couldn’t see my family for a week. It was all so exciting -it never occurred to me that I could be dropped off. But that was 20 years ago.

    I have noticed reading through the comments that almost everyone here is about 90% free range. Everyone has that *one* topic that they draw a more conservative line at -whether it be water on the school desk or heights.falls or water/swimming. Dr. Ann Dunnewold in her book “Even June Cleaver would forget the juice box” says we all need that one thing we can be a bit neurotic about.

    Which is to say instead of being free range -I think of it as a series of binary switches and some get switched to FR and some don’t.

  14. Brenda June 10, 2010 at 2:43 am #

    For me a fascinating conversation in the comments. My husband and I could not have had a more different college experience.

    I was put on a plane and had to negotiate a taxi, pick up my boxes at the front desk and figure everything out on my own.

    My husband had his mother and roomates mother (along with extended family) help set up their dorm room and stay for a couple of days less than 2 hours from home.

    For both of us, our experience was pretty typical for the school we attended. However, I couldn’t imagine that college threshold without some aspect of, Holy bejewels what have I done! Which is exactly what happened as I realized how much I didn’t have with me for that first night and where I was going to procure said items in a completely unknown city. And all without Google Maps!

  15. Annie @ PhD in Parenting June 10, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    On those three questions:

    1) Re: contacting school officials: I would expect by the time my kids are in college that I wouldn’t be doing that anymore. Once they are adults, not only is it not my place, but it is also none of my business and in Canada it is against the law for the school to give any information to a parent.

    2) Re: getting child settled and staying over night: Depending on how far it was, I may or may not stay over night. However, it would be more about not wanting to do two long drives in one day.

    3) Re: frequent phone contact: I think frequent phone contact can either signify over-dependence (child can’t do anything on their own) or simply a strong bond/relationship. It really depends on the nature of the calls. If the child is calling to ask for advice on every little thing or is to ask for permission to do things, then I think that signifies a helicopter situation. If the child is simply calling to fill parents in on how things are going and to find out how things are back home, that is more of a relationship/bond thing.

  16. Karin June 10, 2010 at 2:58 am #

    “pointing fingers and purporting to be able to boil down an entire person to how good or bad a job his parents did raising him — is so simplistic as to be meaningless.”

    OMG Lenore!! You have just summed up beautifully a point I have been trying to make to people for quite some time!!!

  17. Joette June 10, 2010 at 3:31 am #

    Regarding the first night in a new dorm:

    When I was a freshman, my mother drove me the two hours to my college campus, shoved me and my things out of the car, and hurried home to give my bedroom to my younger sister so that younger sister’s bedroom could be turned into an art studio. No helicoptering here! :)

  18. Jean June 10, 2010 at 4:00 am #

    I’m 35 and still contact my mom about every other day. I was raised very free-range, I just happen to have a very close and friendly relationship with my mom. I’ve always been independent and made my own decisions.

  19. hillary June 10, 2010 at 4:56 am #

    This is an interesting study for me because I think I end up “helicoptering” more than I would naturally because my daughter simply needs it. As a very shy introvert, she requires more time to adjust to new people and situations. So while I would have loved to drop her off at preschool as a two year old and say, “Hasta luego,” she needed me to stay with her in the classroom for almost six months before she felt comfortable enough to do it alone. I could have left her to cry but I wanted her to feel safe and positive about school rather than nervous and scared (as I did). Now she is four and a pro at preschool. Loves it and prefers to do it without me. Hooray! Even though I am a SAHM, I believe children need time without parental interference so they can interact with the world on their own terms. However, in the case of some children like my daughter (the small minority) the need security before they can be independent. I might not score very well on a helicopter quiz like the one given in the study, but it’s not about me…it’s about her.

  20. Penni Russon June 10, 2010 at 6:27 am #

    I teach third year undergrads at a university where most of the students have had a private education. It’s pretty clear that uni was a big abrupt change for many of them, and that having to think and act on their own behalves, and moderate their own behaviour with regards to attendance, conduct, punctuality and actually, you know, doing some work. I’ve always put it down to school culture more than helicopter parenting (I wouldn’t assume that a kid in private school had a helicopter parent, though I can see why a helicopter parent might choose a private school). Funnily in the discussions that have come up (some of the books we studied this year had a child in them, and many had themes about nanny-governments and moral panic about children’s innocence), many of my 20ish year old students are not at all free-range in their visions of themselves as parents (and as such find the idea of parenting really unappealing).

    I’ve only had one parent negotiate on his daughter’s behalf, but his daughter had had a stroke a couple of years before she was in my class (on a family vacation, so he must have stood by helplessly as it happened) and I think he can be forgiven for a bit of helicoptering. I have to say though, she was doing brilliantly on her own, so I hope he does let go a bit.

    @Hilary I think it’s pretty free-range to let kids set the standards about how much comfort and security they need – I would never call someone over-protective because they hung out with their 2 year old at preschool a little longer (unless you were the one standing their clutching her and weeping while she tried to play with the puzzles…) Sometimes my four year old is happy for me to leave and sometimes she’s not, I always stay until she’s engaged with something before I go (which occasionally prompts her to say ‘Aren’t you GOING yet?’). I like what Lenore says about free-range being more about giving yourself a break than a child-rearing philosophy – about letting yourself know that your daily decisions (and indecisions) are not the be all and end all of the person your child grows up to be.

  21. Penni Russon June 10, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    Oh and p.s. Lenore, I really enjoyed reading your response to this and some of the dissenting comments, I am not sure exactly what I think except yes, I do agree that studies are often contradictory (I remember there was a well publicised one a couple of years ago saying kids who do four activities a week were actually happier and had higher self esteem, so nyer nyer to those parents who let their kids play with sticks in the backyard after school. Which I am sure has been disproved just as many times.)

  22. Jen Connelly June 10, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    According to that little test my parents would have scored 2 out of 3 and they were far from being helicopter parents. I was definitely a free-range kid.

    But my parents contacted the school several times. I mean, my dad was paying the tuition so I left that stuff up to him. Not once, though, had either of them contacted a teacher or anyone else on my behalf.

    They also stayed the night when they dropped me off for freshman week. Then again, it was an 8 hour drive. But they didn’t hover around me. They helped me move into the dorm then wandered around the campus while I did my own thing. Then they took me shopping (I had no car) before leaving for the night to go to their hotel. The next morning they came back and took me to breakfast and we said our good-byes. They were gone before noon.

    My roommates and most of the other freshmen in my dorm had their parents stay almost the entire week and mom and dad ate with them every day in the cafeteria or called each night after leaving to check on them before bed. I just rolled my eyes. I didn’t even hook up my long distance until 3 weeks into the school year (so I couldn’t call home if I had wanted to).

    The last one…my parents rarely called me while I was away at school. I doubt it was because my mom didn’t want to but she respected that I wasn’t much of a phone person. I rarely called home either. Eventually we got into a rhythm where I would call every other weekend and if I didn’t my mom would call me. I’m sure there were times she itched to call me more often and check on me but I screened all my calls through the answering machine and probably wouldn’t have picked up. What more is there to say when you just talked 2 days before? Plus I was busy with school and working (none of my roommates had jobs).

    I was in college in the mid-90s and was already seeing the first generation of helicopter kids coming in. They were completely lost once their parents left, cried at night, called home every day (sometimes several times a day because they couldn’t make simple decisions on their own), couldn’t cook or clean up after themselves, definitely couldn’t do laundry and were afraid to do anything on their own (so made friends quick so they would never be by themselves…ever).

  23. Dawn June 10, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    Well, having dumped 2 kids off at college in my time, I’d have to say the questions are poorly worded.

    Have I talked to a school official on my child’s behalf? Yes, because said child asked me to do so (she was having issues with her advisor and asked my help in working things out. I let her lead but gave ideas and suggestions on the phone call).

    We did stay overnight and helped both kids set up their rooms, because the colleges were 6-8 hours away and we didn’t want to make the trip back home right away. We also took the time to take the kids shopping for supplies once they were in their rooms and had decided what additional items they wanted/needed (usually storage related!) But once they were settled in we said good bye and left!

    The kids contact us when they want/need to. It may be daily or it may not be for 2 weeks…or might be every 2 hours! I contact them if something important comes up, otherwise, I figure they are adults and can do things alone, knowing that if they want/need my help they know they can ask for it.

    However, Child #1 worked at her University Orientation for 3 years, and had many tales to tell of Helicopter parents. Parents who tried to insist on going with their child to schedule classes (shot down every time by the Dean…a WONDERFUL man…). Parents who wheedled the child’s password out of them – despite the child being told specifically in orientation NOT to allow this – changing the child’s schedule then being upset when the child is locked out of a required class. Parents who sat in the Orientation meeting and brushed their child’s hair or washed their faces. Parents who tried to sleep in the dorm with said child during the Orientation overnight. I could go on…

    So, I don’t like the questionaire, but it all depends on wording and context. I don’t think I am a helicopter mom!

  24. Vanessa June 10, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    @hillary, I agree that some kids need more support at first. My daughter at three was terrified of everything, and would scream hysterically every time we visited a relative’s house – we ended up not sending her to preschool at all because of it. By the time kindergarten rolled around, she was nervous, but kept a stiff upper lip as I left her classroom. Just a few weeks ago, she asked me if I could please NOT chaperone the sixth-grade class trip to the state capital next year, because she wants to go alone. I never would have believed she’d reach this point, but here we are. I’m thinking she’s not going to have a problem when I drop her off at college (if she even lets me drop her off – at this rate she may not even want a ride to the airport).

  25. Kimberly June 10, 2010 at 9:09 am #

    I wonder if the people at my university thought I had helicopter parents.

    The first day I showed up with Mom, Dad, Sis, Sis’s best friend, 2 cousins, their husbands, and their 3 kids (total not each). We had made a long weekend of the trip, so we could see the cousins. Then we all went out to eat lunch, before I was dropped off to start orientation.

    Freshman year my suite mate attempted suicide and used my medication to do it. They called my parents and said I was obviously hording drugs and might be suicidal. I had enough meds to last from end of Christmas break till Spring break. My doctor, pharmacist, and our lawyer laid down the law to them. (I was not suicidal – but I did nearly punch a girl who grabbed me in a bear hug from behind and that was not considered stable)

    Senior year I had been sick as a dog for a couple of weeks. I found out the catering company had been using peanut oil in some food. There had been cross contamination. I’m allergic and each year before I signed the contract for room and board they added language about no peanut oil. I had called Dad to get our lawyer’s number. So I had to tell him what was up. The lawyer told me what to say. I was waiting in the Dean’s office, when he rushed out for an emergency.

    They were doing fundraising calls – and they called my Dad. Dad had lots of other stress right then – and this was the last straw. He exploded. When the Dean got back to the office – he gave me money to eat out for the next 2 days, while the kitchen was cleaned and the peanut oil disposed of. The manager claimed they were using peanut oil because the president of the university had a bad heart. Peanut oil is not good for the heart because of the type of fat. Manger was fired for violating the contract. The university also paid for my medical expenses.

  26. Renee Miller June 10, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    Your points are so true. I have been a “helicopter parent” for most of their life. If I wasn’t they would have been nervous wrecks, all of them. All 3 of mine were so very shy! I have always been free-range in attitude, but practice was hard to come by. Even today my twin boys (11y) say flat out they don’t want to grow up, the like me doing everything for them, and have very little interest in going out into the world without me. My husband is VERY outgoing, and I’m not exactly shy. So I guess you could say that THEY made ME into a helicopter parent. I now have them in a structured free-range program. I’m happy to say they are making excellent progress.

  27. Taylor June 10, 2010 at 10:57 am #

    @Rachel, when you first mentioned the “downsizing” of the family, I thought you meant the downsizing of the nuclear family, not the extended family. For my wife and I, who live over a thousand miles from the nearest relatives, our church relationships effectively do all those things you mention the extended family doing. As I’ve read this blog (and before finding it) I’ve often thought that the downsizing of the nuclear family may be a contributing factor to the rise of safety-first and helicopter parenting. I also wonder if there are any long term societal differences in the “parent as friend” relationships that are often emphasized.

    The first and second questions quoted in the article don’t seem like strong indicators to me. I say, “Meh.” They are both single events, no discernible pattern, too situational to be useful. Parents calling their college freshmen every other day? That’s a pattern. I suspect it’s the best indicator of the three. It raises my “parent as friend” wonderings.

    My response: doesn’t the kid have homework to do or friends to chill with? Don’t the parents have anything else to do with their lives? Who has that much time to dedicate to conversations of the quotidian? Maybe the average college freshman has a much more exciting life than I did. 😉

  28. Susan2 June 10, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    I totally don’t understand the problem with parents staying overnight and settling their kids into college. If this is the first time they have been away from home, why not give them the comfort for a day or two during transition? So much of it depends on background, too. My alma mater is lucky enough to have a lot of money to assist students, which means there are a lot of students there who are first generation college students. Many of them have never traveled more than a couple of hours from home. They are coming to a place with other students who went to hoity-toity high schools and feel nervous. Of course they want their families there for a couple of days! And it makes the family feel better to see where the student is settled so they can picture it when the child calls home to talk about their life at college.

  29. Meagan June 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    I went to college 2000 miles from home. My parents made a vacation of it, spending a week in a nearby city, then a day or two helping me settle in. I didn’t find that particularly helecopter-y… I appreciated it. I suppose 3 plane tix and a week in a hotel might be seen as extravagant, but I think I would have been a bit freaked if I’d had to do it all by myself. I wasn’t the homesick type, but talk about culture shock!

    As for the phone question, I think there’s a difference between “how often do you talk?” and “would your parents hunt you down if they didn’t hear from you?” On the other hand, this might show a disconnect in the researchers… With the current generation growing up with cell phones, 2 days without contact is probably less normal and therefor more alarming. Especially with texting, did they figure in texting?

  30. Party Piper June 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    Well, I think it depends. Parents driving from a far way away? Probably need a hotel. But I grew up in a family where if a hotel room was not patently needed, ie, getting home that night would have been out of the question, well, you went home. First night of college or no. There just wasn’t an extra $100, plus food for all the next day. And I knew that going in… chose college near home, but needed to be taken to summer opportunities, and yes, I was dropped off, end of story.

    I do know that at the big ass public university round these parts, many instructors have started telling the kids that if their parents call, they aren’t allowed to give them any information about their grades or even if they’re enrolled in the class due to privacy laws. I will say that as an “old” student, I have noticed things like not being able to problem solve in labs, not having the wherewithal to keep track of when tests are (they give you a piece of paper in the beginning of the semester to tell you, people! And nowadays, if you lose it, it’s on-freakin’-line! Stop playing Farmtown and give it a glance!)

    Another thing I’ve noticed is that students also seem to expect teachers to end the lecture when they’re bored. I’m now in a two week CNA course, and when the “youngins” are ready to go, they start putting their things away, shifting around, getting up, making a production of being noisy about putting things away, ect. when they’re “done” instead of when the class is done. Published end time is 4:30. Sure, I love getting home early too, but I signed up to be here every day from 8-4:30, and that’s life. It’s like they expect the teacher to stop because they’re bored/not paying attention anymore.

  31. Brad Warbiany June 10, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    Two things here… And I’m an engineer, so I tend to have a very critical eye towards this sort of thing… From the linked story:

    Participants had to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me,” “On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted,” and “If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me.”

    Note use of “statements such as”. I suspect there were a lot more than these three questions. These were probably the three that the journalist thought most parents might relate to?

    About 10 percent of the participants had helicopter parents. The rate was higher in girls than in boys, with 13 percent of the females being helicoptered compared with just 5 percent of males.

    Based on the unscientific responses of your readers (who are more likely to be free-range than not), I can’t square those three questions with a 10% “helicopter rate”. If the study was limited to those questions, one would think that a much higher rate of helicopter parenting would be found.

    Thus I’m convinced that this study, like many scientific studies, was not accurately portrayed by the journalist. I suggest reading the original research before drawing a conclusion affirming or contradicting the study.

  32. helenquine June 10, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    I don’t object to studies being done on how parenting styles might impact children, or parents or the rest of our society.

    Social science research is hard, in part because it’s pretty much unethical to really apply the scientific method to the subject matter with rigor. So it’s always fuzzy and people always need to be considering the considerable limitations of the research.

    I do think science journalism tends to be appalling, and aimed at developing controversy, fear and guilt rather than understanding. This article is a perfect example. Reporting on one study in a general context is virtually worthless. There is no attempt to communicate the scope of the research, its limitations, how well accepted it is by the scientific community, nor to inform readers of what is actually significant about it.

    At the end there is a paragraph where the study’s author points out that what they have found is an association, not a causal relationship. So (as Hillary illustrates up thread) even if their definition of over protectiveness is reasonable – they may merely found a bunch of kids whose dependence make their parents more protective rather than a bunch of parents whose protectiveness makes their kids dependent.

    And ditto to all the comments pointing out that parents interceding on a student’s behalf at college is completely different from interceding at high school. Staying over at the start of term is not the same as staying over to make sure your kid is adjusted. And calling your parents frequently to chat is not the same as thinking they’re going to initiate contact if you get too busy for a couple of days. Also, these are just 3 of the questions the students were asked – there’s no suggestion the study considered a parent “helicoptering” if they did just these three things.

    The paper was presented at a conference, but I haven’t found it published yet. In the conference blurb the study’s author says they found most “helicopter” parents were mothers, and most “helicoptered” kids were female. I find that interesting and wonder what drives that dynamic. Also only about 10% of the kids hit scored as “helicoptered” in their study – which I think is good news.

  33. SKL June 10, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

    Well, I think we can still see some positive in the study. The research shows that even kids who have less help than you would offer can cope very well.

    The implications go way beyond criticizing individual parents for “being there.” This shows that so-called “disadvantaged” youths may actually have an advantage. Those folks who all the bleeding hearts feel would fail without a lot of government hand-holding? Not really so. (I was one of those poor disadvantaged youths, so I should know.)

    That said, my mom didn’t even entertain the possibility of my going to live in a dorm when I started college at 16. Not that we could have afforded it anyway. She thought that was too young and I would do something stupid. Although at the time I was highly offended by this suggestion, I now think she was probably right. But, when I went off to law school at 21, she helped me move into the dorm and then drove home. I had the phone number of a woman I could hitch a ride with if I ever wanted to come home for a visit. And phone calls? Too expensive. Contact with the school (even when I was in 16) on my behalf? No way. That actually ended long before I graduated HS.

    I find it hard to comment on “studies” any more. I think the state of so-called “science” has degenerated to the point where it has no credibility on its own.

  34. baby-paramedic June 10, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    Hey, I was actually part of a similar study in Australia. Basically, they were seeing if there were the same results here.
    It did not just boil down to three questions.
    I completed 5 pages of questions and was interviewed.

    And even my parents, as free range as you can get, helped me unpack when I moved to uni. Okay, that may have had something to do with me telling them they could either come and help or I would be back in a week with the 4wd, and that I was taking the trailer 😉
    And them wanting the car unpacked so they could get out of there (What sane parent wants to hang around a college?)
    They didn’t spend the night though nor have they assisted in moving any of the other times. Just that one long-haul trip across a few state borders =)

  35. Donna June 10, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    These three questions are meaningless. I could imagine answering them either way.

    Of course I would intercede on behalf of my preschooler. My elementary schooler, middle schooler and high schooler as well, although to lessening degrees as I prepare her to handle matters on her own. I will not intercede on behalf of my college student but it doesn’t seem like the was the direct call of the question.

    As for taking her to school and spending the night, that will depend on the situation and her wishes. Certainly if she is going to a college where she can’t have a car freshman year (many of them these days) someone will have to drive her and, if it’s a long distance, I’ll spend the night. If she is taking a car and wants me to go, I’ll go. If she is taking a car and wants to do it herself, I’ll stay home. If she’s going to the college 2 miles away from our house, she can move her own damn self but I will be spending every night in the same town.

    Frequent calling depends on the relationship and purpose. I don’t call my mother daily or weekly but we don’t have a particularly close relationship. If it wasn’t for the kid, we’d go weeks without talking. Are they calling to check up? Because they can’t make their own decisions? Because mom can’t imagine that her baby is okay without her? Or are they calling simply because they enjoy each others company? Personally, I think every couple days at that age is too much but other people have different relationships with their parents.

  36. helenquine June 10, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    SKL : “This shows that so-called “disadvantaged” youths may actually have an advantage.”

    It does no such thing. The study – as reported in the article – has no implications whatsoever for “disadvantaged” youth. It doesn’t look at them in anyway. There is no way to tell whether anyone in the study falls under the heading of “disadvantaged”, nor whether any that do would be in a group distinct from the ones considered “helicoptered”.

    The study looks at dependency, neuroses and openness rather than the things most people who support government programs for the “disadvantaged” are generally looking to achieve, which tend to be more along the lines of completion of a 4 year program, salary level etc. It may be that the kids who are “helicoptered” do better on these sorts of measures – something else this study does not address. I think that there are plenty of parents who would swap a little independence for their kids in return for financial stability.

    Which isn’t to say such government programs work – just that this study has nothing to say on the matter.

  37. Jean June 10, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

    Oh boy, let the hysteria begin. Delta mixed up two kids and sent them to the wrong place. Nothing happened, Delta refunded the money, etc. But read the newsvine comments….here we go!!


  38. Becky June 10, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    Obviously, there is no way to make a set of questions like these entirely scientific. There may be legitimate reasons for all the “helicopter” items discussed. I can’t imagine contacting a school official about my child’s grades or getting into a class, but if he was up for a scholarship and I personally knew someone on the decision making board…sure I might try to play him or her up. I’m not above making an effort to save myself money. As for leaving the kid alone the first night at college, that is 100% dependent on how far away the school is. If it’s a long flight or car drive away, heck yes I’ll be spending the night, but it’s not because I think I need to check on how my kid is settling in. As for the calling home, I was required to call my parents twice a week, but I thought that was pretty restrictive of them and a result of the fact that I’m an only child. Notably, I was also required to call my grandparents (I’m also an only grandchild) once a week, so it wasn’t that they were worried about me, it’s just that everyone wanted to hear my news (even when I didn’t have anything to say).

  39. Dee Hall June 10, 2010 at 9:53 pm #

    “A student who is an adult away at college should never have the parent contact the school on his behalf. It’s reasonable to do with a child, but once you’re in college, it’s your responsibility.”

    In the US, at least, I would offer one exception to this. Since financial aid determination is very heavily influenced by information that the PARENTS provide/the parents tax filings, there are reasons why the parents may need to have contact with the financial aid office for an undergrad student. When my father lost his job and I was about to have to leave school as a result, the only one who could get the financial aid office to do a damned thing was my father. He had to submit a ton of paperwork proving to them that his previous years tax filings were no longer applicable.

    But it was also that nonsense (and my parents unwillingness to deal with it until it was a pretty big disaster) that lead me to graduate early and basically finish my education in grad school instead. At least for grad school financial, they were only looking at my $9/hour tax filings.

  40. Teri June 10, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

    My parents wouldn’t let me leave for a 4 yr college when I got out of high school-I had to stay at the local community college for 2 years. But, they did let me live in town (we lived in the country) for 1 year to learn the ropes before I left. They went with me to orientation in that they drove me to the uni, but I had to figure out the rest. They day I actually left for college I hugged Mom and Dad good-by, FREEDOM! 4 hours between me and my parents-WOO HOO! I then went to my boyfriend’s to say good-by and bawled for the first hour of the drive-because my boyfriend would be 4 hr drive away after the move. I had to figure out dorm life all by myself.

    I am now the graduate secretary at a university. Last year I had several calls from a mother about her daughter getting in to our grad. program-when would the committee meet? where there any missing documents in the file? when will you let me know? I told her flat out that I was legally restricted from telling her, because she wasn’t the applicant! FERPA! This particular applicant was not admitted due to undergraduate grades, but I doubt she would have made it because faculty won’t coddle undergraduate students, much less grad students.

  41. pentamom June 10, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    Yes, it depends whether the metric for “helicopter parents” really is more sophisticated than a superficial view of the three tests mentioned. If it is, then the study might have some value. If it doesn’t, the test is too narrow, too subjective, and two dependent upon personal variables to serve as a sufficient determiner of whether the subjects fall into the class that’s being studied.

    Some more obvious possibilities: have you ever refused to allow your 16 year old or older child to ride in a car with someone simply because you didn’t know the person? (I have a relative who wouldn’t let her high school aged daughter get a ride from anyone, unless she knew — as in had met, spoken to, and knew something about — the person., So no “Karen’s mom is giving us a ride home from practice” for them. Not if Karen’s mom wasn’t in the rolodex, so to speak.)

    Are you afraid to let a child over five years old walk to the end of the driveway to get the newspaper in a low-crime neighborhood?

    Did you personally pick out the furnishings for your child’s dorm room, and unpack and arrange them according to YOUR method?

    Have you ever attempted to intervene in a job-hunting situation with your child where there was no previous relationship between you and the potential employer?

    We could come up with a lot that would be more reflective of “helicoptering” than the things mentioned in the post. I don’t talk to my daughter more than once a week unless there’s a “reason” when she’s at college, but I could easily imagine some friends who have a more “verbal” relationship with their kids doing so, without it being helicoptering. Free Range doesn’t have to mean a more distant relationship, it just means the parent isn’t the one physically in charge of the child at every blessed moment. They just LIKE to talk and keep each other in the loop, and it goes both ways. And if you regularly hear from someone, anyone, on a daily basis, and then don’t with no explanation — yeah, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to check. But that’s check, not show up on their doorstep, or start calling campus security and the hospitals.

  42. elle June 11, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    There are many reasons why a parent may contact college –some are helicoptering (fixing class schedule), others are not (financial aid issues), some are in between (I remember having issues getting something fixed in my dorm. We complained & complained & it finally got fixed when one of the Dads called)

    As for Delta, why does this have anything to do with helicopter parenting? It makes the news when a dog gets lost or rerouted on planes, people get very pissed when their luggage doesn’t arrive on time (I sure do!), why wouldn’t you get pissed, why wouldn’t it make news, when your kid is in on the wrong plane?

  43. Sara June 11, 2010 at 2:06 am #

    Re college drop-off, my school was too far to do the round trip in one day, plus the school wanted us to arrive in the morning. So we drove the night before and stayed in a hotel, then once my parents delivered me to the school they went home.

    That makes more sense to me than people who say it’s too far to drive the roundtrip in one day, so I’m going to take you to school ON drop-off day, and THEN stay locally overnight and check up on you again the day after. I would have found that really annoying, intrusive, and untrusting of my ability to navigate my new situation.

    Plus there were lots of scheduled events (for first-year students ONLY) those first days, and leaving campus for brunch with mommy and daddy would have meant missing something.

    I don’t remember ANY parents around campus after that first day or hanging around to help set up rooms. This was in 1983 though, so I guess times have changed. I realize now it was bliss to go off to college not only before cell phones, but when there was just one phone on the hall for 20+ students and no email. I’ve always been very close to/fond of my parents, but I was really ready to craft an independent life and would have hated the constant communications we have today.

  44. DMT June 11, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    I was raised fairly free range because with four kids underfoot my full-time working mother just didn’t have time to hover. In our house, you solved your own problems. As a child, teenager, etc, I wished she was more “involved” but at 41, I’m now grateful she took a hands-off approach. It taught me self-sufficiency.

    You’ll probably get a kick out of this story though. My former boss is the textbook definition of a helicopter. One year, her oldest daughter, at an out-of-state college, called my boss in tears because she had finals that next week and was really stressed out. My boss booked a last-minute flight to that city and sat with her daughter in a hotel room while her daughter studied. I suppose it would come as no shock that my boss was also the textbook definition of a micro-manager. :)

  45. Donna June 11, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    “As for Delta, why does this have anything to do with helicopter parenting? It makes the news when a dog gets lost or rerouted on planes, people get very pissed when their luggage doesn’t arrive on time (I sure do!), why wouldn’t you get pissed, why wouldn’t it make news, when your kid is in on the wrong plane?”

    It’s not the fact that the parents are upset that their kids got put on the wrong plane. Of course they are! Just like the parents of the kid who got left at the park had a right to be annoyed. The problem is first the anticipated backlash from society that you can now NEVER allow your child to fly alone on a plane because he or she will surely get put on the wrong one (and probably molested too) – completely forgetting the fact that this made the news indicates that it’s a very rare occurrence (we don’t hear about it everytime a suitcase gets put on the wrong plane because that happens frequently).

    The other problem is that this will be blown way out of proportion. Nobody was hurt. It was a careless mix up. While the parties involved have a right to be annoyed, the rest of society doesn’t need to be up in arms over this. The employees at Delta involved will clearly be fired (and maybe rightfully so) and possibly will face child cruelty charges (completely unnecessary).

    On the other side of the coin, the 16 year old who was trying to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat is missing. I tend to think that this is a little too free range for my tastes. I’m good handing my teenager a license and some car keys and letting her lose in town. I don’t think I’d go as far as to allow her to sail around the world by herself.

  46. Elizabeth June 11, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    “Parents who wheedled the child’s password out of them – despite the child being told specifically in orientation NOT to allow this – changing the child’s schedule then being upset when the child is locked out of a required class.”

    Holy crap.

  47. Jessica June 11, 2010 at 3:01 am #

    Just a bit of perspective from a higher ed administrator. I thought these were good questions.

    1) “My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me,”

    There are systems in place and people in positions to assist students in taking care of these things themselves. Those who have helicopter parents often don’t realize this as they are used to their parents taking care of it for them. Or they are just talking to their parents and their parents feel the need to rescue their student by stepping in. I can’t tell you the number of parents who asked me not to tell their student they had talked to me. At the college level there are privacy issues in place. Often I cannot even discuss the issue with the parent due to federal law.

    2) “On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted,”

    Many Universities have a policy which asks the parents to leave by a certain time on move-in day. There are typically activities and orientation programs to assist the student with adjusting. There are parents who ignore the request that they leave their child and hinder the child from participating in these activities. This can be detrimental to the student’s adjustment.

    3) “If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me.”

    There are many times when a parent has called me or campus police to say they haven’t spoken to their child in 2 or 3 days. They fear they are missing or something has happened to them. It’s a level of panic that in 99% of cases, is unwarranted.

    In my experience, these situations were more prevalent at small Universities. The larger and more urban Universities I worked at seemed to have fewer of these instances.

  48. RL June 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

    Lenore, I don’t mean to be insulting here, but I think your objections to this study are due to a misunderstanding of its conclusions. They’re not trying to say that there’s a one-to-one correlation (i.e. if you have a helicopter parent, you WILL be neurotic) — they’re simply saying that, all other things being equal, helicopter parents are MORE LIKELY to have neurotic kids. I agree, it’s ridiculous to suggest that how a kid turns out completely depends on their parents, but I’d argue that it’s equally ridiculous to deny that parents have a substantial impact on their kids’ development. All this study is saying is that the parents’ degree of helicopter-ness (technical term) tends to have SOME demonstrable effect on certain key personality traits in their kids. Completely reasonable, no?

  49. Myriam June 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    I agree with you about the problem of “parental determinism” and that studies like this are complete candyfloss.

    Nevertheless, I can’t help being pleased when I see something like this because it does tend to chip away at prevailing beliefs like you can’t be too rich, too thin, or monitor your child too much.
    I have just started allowing my 8 going on 9 year old to stay at the park with a friend without me. I’ve only done it three times and already I’ve had a friend who saw him wanting a quiet word with me that began “I was a bit concerned…”

    If studies like this make people less sure that monitoring their children all the time is an unalloyed virtue and that people who give their children more freedom are doing it for reasons other than neglect and naivety, than I am all for them.

  50. Alison S. June 11, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    As a scientist, I’d have to say that the study smells like rotten fish (there’s not enough information to convince me that the chosen indicators were either appropriate or the least bit free of confounds) and the article that describes it is like the day-old newspaper in which it was delivered (it deliberately describes NOTHING of substance about the study, not even properly referencing the source articles). However, you can bet that I’ll be printing it out and carrying a copy in my purse to have as ammunition for those times when social push-backs are needed, because it’s the best we’ve got so far – we have to start SOMEWHERE and if all we’ve got is pseudo-science, then we’ll have to make do with it for the moment. At least it supports our common-sense conclusions (there IS a place for common sense in our lives).

  51. esmeraldasquietlife June 15, 2010 at 4:13 am #

    I guess this has been kind of touched on, but not really thoroughly addressed head-on in the comments.
    (which have, by the way, been a fascinating read- I love your commenters! Their input is as fun to read as the OP most of the time!!!!)
    Ok, so here goes.
    I don’t know if this makes a lot of sense, but when I was a youngun, and then a teen-un- er- whatever- I had varying degrees of need for the attention of my mother and/or father. Depending on the occasion and circumstance, I would go to them for my needs. They did not solicit help, but allowed me to decide how much slack my leash needed at any given point.
    Most of the time I was a totally free agent. I wanted no help, so I got no help. Occasionally, I would go to them asking them to intercede. (once a cat peed on my homework, my teacher didn’t believe me so I called my mom- my mom came in to school with the desecrated paper in a plastic cover and smacked it down on his desk. Ha!) Mostly though, I could deal with my own issues, and preferred to be left to my own devices- what kid wants their parents constantly hovering? For me and my peers, it would be humiliating if a parent did all this stuff for them, babying them and whatnot.

    I was glad my parents were there when I needed them, but unless I asked for their help, they didn’t really proffer it. Which I think is great.

    They didn’t start any kind of college fund for me, but then they were poor, so I didn’t really expect them to. Additionally, I had decided pretty early on I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on something I could get for free anyway. I left school midway though my junior year of HS, which my mom wasn’t crazy about, but she realized it was out of her hands. She was a lot happier when I went down to the community college the next week and got my GED.

    Anyway, I guess my point here is: Assuming that a parent hasn’t been so domineering as to socially debilitate their child already, what does the kid want?
    Does the kid want the ‘rents to hang out for a day or two and help with the practical-life stuff or would they rather be thrown to the sharks?

    Would they rather talk to mom n’ pop every couple of days or do they want to be left the hell alone? (I talked to my mom frequently-we were great freinds- she would see a lawn-gnome-painting-class and call me, I would see a crazy bible thumper with a sandwich board about the apocolypse and call her, etc) I think there’s a pretty big difference between calling to ‘copter and calling to chat. I am, and always have been friends with my direct progenitors- I miss my mom tons and still wish I had the ability to call her and tell her when rogue opossums break into my house and eat my cat’s food. I couldn’t imagine living a life where it was weird or hovery that we talked on a regular basis. I talk to my dad tons, and only don’t call him because we work the same job but different shifts, so I see him by default a couple times a week anyway. We gab like fools.

    I don’t think any of these questions is very helpful, because they’re simply too vague to have any real meaning. There is obvioustly no scientific control here, and it’s just too objective to be a functional study. I’m glad it was done, but it’s not really very helpful as a source material.

    For me it boils down to how much intervention from a parent the kid wants, under what circumstance, and given what conditions? Sometimes I needed my mom a lot, and sometimes not at all- they let me be the guide of how much and when (with reasonable boundaries in both directions “No dear, I won’t do your geometry homework for you” vs “No sweety you can’t smoke grass at age 12”)- there’s not really a good questionaire format that would describe them- or any parenting style. It’s case by case and moment by moment- and isn’t that half the fun of life?

  52. esmeraldasquietlife June 15, 2010 at 4:17 am #

    not objective- SUB-jective. egads, Esmeralda. Edit your post before you submit it!

  53. campus girl June 22, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

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    Good job. Love it!