One of the themes that I discussed with our guests at Grandparents and Special Friends Day was how challenging it can be for today’s children to have enough opportunities to figure things out on their own. I am not saying that children should be left on their own to traverse childhood without adult intervention — far from it. But I find that, often, with the best of intentions, parents try to smooth the experiences, bumps, and disappointments that children need to navigate themselves if they are to become healthy, increasingly independent and resilient adolescents, college students, and young adults. I shared that this growing tendency is one of the most significant changes in parenting styles that I have observed over my 26 years at The Country School.
Thus, I was interested to see in this month’s Atlantic an article entitled “The Partnership Between Colleges and Helicopter Parents.”
The author, sociology professor Laura Hamilton, tells of a 5-year study she undertook of 41 undergraduates as they attended a not disclosed flagship public university. To control her study as much as possible, she focused on women because they make up the majority of today’s college students and graduate at a higher rate. She sought to determine how different parenting styles led to “success” (defined as graduation, independence, and employment, or grad school after graduation).
Hamilton discovered that her students’ parents basically fell into these categories: “helicopter parents” who are “pesky interlopers who test the patience of school officials, meddle with university affairs, and raise a generation of ‘coddled,’ ‘entitled,’ and ‘under-constructed’ youth”; “paramedics” who play “an active but more hands-off role in their child’s college life”; and “bystanders” who were far less actively involved because “they lacked the financial resources and educational experience to help.”
The article is worth reading because its premises, findings, and implications are rather nuanced. For instance, she found that 2/5 of the parents were either professional-oriented helicopter parents — who left little to chance and were intimately involved in their daughters’ academic and early professional progressions — or “pink helicopter” parents who “took a less academically intensive tact… [and] invested resources to enable their children to have the ‘best years of their lives.’” Both of these sets of parents were affluent, educated, and working in professional careers.
“Paramedics played an active, but more hands-off role in their children’s college life.” These parents had familiarity with college life, and were either “affluent with humble roots” or “low-income parents with exposure to higher education.” Both socioeconomic groups valued “their child’s autonomy [and]… allowed small mistakes as learning experiences.” They would intervene if they deemed it necessary and they could “provide cash infusions that allowed women to clear hurdles.”
Finally, 1/3 of the parents were “bystanders” who “mostly worked long hours in manual labor or low-paid service positions” who lacked the time or the financial or educational experiences to help their daughters navigate college. These young women graduated at much lower rates and had a much harder time finding post-graduate employment.
Not surprisingly, the daughters of “paramedics” tended to step off campus into near-immediate and emotional self-sufficiency.” However, Hamilton also found that “education and professional success today… seem to require moderate-to-extensive financial, emotional, and logistical parenting support, through college and the transition to the labor force.” And it ends up that prominent public universities, such as the one in the study, have started to lean more heavily on parents for financial and networking resources since public support of flagship universities is in a significant state of decline. “Administrators’ complaints about parental ‘meddling’ are now tempered with interest in a ‘partner relationship’ with parents.”
Ultimately, Hamilton posits that public universities are structuring their programs more around the needs of students from affluent backgrounds than ever before and they are depending on parents to “extend major parenting responsibilities further into their own life course than they might ever have imagined.” The societal implications of relying on some variety of “helicopter parenting,” while simultaneously abandoning “the promise of social mobility once at the heart of the public university mission,” are worthy of consideration.