Thomas Cornman, now vice president for academics at Cedarville University, was not surprised when one of the resident assistants at a previous school came to him with a perplexing problem. Just two days into the semester, a mother had come into the dorm early one morning to wake up her student. She wanted to make sure he wasn't late for his first lecture. The RA had no idea what to say. He was shocked, but Cornman was not.
Helicopter parents, who hover over every aspect of their student's life, have become a fixture at most colleges. Administrators have gotten used to seeing parents on campus long past move in day. Some have embraced the trend, capitalizing on parents' positive influence on their students' decisions. Others, fearing parents may stunt their students' emotional growth if they never let them make their own choices, do everything they can to edge parents out of campus life.
A study on helicopter parents released last month at a conference for student affairs administrators, shows that the more open schools might have the right approach. The study, which closely analyzed 70 student-parent pairs from all over the country, found that students' personal growth did not suffer from close ties to their parents. But most of the parents involved in the study claimed only to give their students advice. The schools that encounter problems with overly involved parents often find that parents are calling the shots for young adults who should be learning to make decisions on their own.
Administrators at Cedarville, in Ohio, have another name for parents who can't let their children fail. Snow plow parents perceive "an obstacle is coming, and then step in to push it out of the way," Cornman said.
Twenty years ago, when Cornman first started teaching in higher education, he rarely interacted with a parent. Today, he takes phone calls from parents every week. And he doesn't think parents are likely to become less involved over time.
Cedarville strictly adheres to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prevents the administration from releasing any information about a student, even to parents, without the student signing a waiver. Cornman will not talk with a parent unless the student has signed the waiver or the student takes part in the conversation. While many parents have felt very put off by these rules, Cornman describes them as necessary and healthy for the students.
In order to help ease parents into their new role, some schools have started offering classes to help prepare them for the changes that will come in their relationships with their students. Cedarville recently started a parent's counsel, a parents' website and now offers sessions for parents during "welcome week." All of those efforts focus on teaching parents how to let their students gain independence in a natural way. Many of today's college students grew up in very protective environments, and parents still feel the need to protect their children from harm, even after they've gone off to college, Cornman said.
Regent University, in Virginia Beach, Va., also recently had its first parents' meeting to discuss establishing a parents' senate. The school welcomes parental involvement, President Carlos Campo said. Parents often have great spiritual insight and allow the administration to see things they might not have been able to see otherwise, Campo said. But he acknowledged it can become disconcerting when parents get too involved and don't allow their students to mature. Parents who are too involved can "take on a role that doesn't allow children to find an expression of adulthood," Campo said.
Because parents are more involved than they used to be, officials at Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Va., are more intentional about training staff to deal appropriately with parents, said Mark Heins, senior vice president for Student Affairs. But the school doesn't view helicopter parents as a problem.
"We would rather have over involved parents than under engaged," Heins said.
Liberty sees its relationship with the parents as a team effort. If parents ever get out of balance in their interactions with their students, school officials ask them to back off, Heins said. A few years ago, after a mother had just dropped off her freshman, she requested an empty dorm room or prayer room where she could stay for the next month to make sure that the student adjusted to the new surroundings. That, administrators admitted, was taking parental involvement a little too far.
Although some students remain overly dependent on their parents, other students realize gaining independence is a part of growing up. Hadassah Mendez, a junior studying Communications at Regent, realized last year she had to set clear boundaries in her family relationships. Mendez comes from a very close knit family, so her mom had a very difficult time letting her go when she left for college, Mendez said. Although her mom had great intentions, Mendez often felt smothered.
"I felt guilt and the burden that my mom didn't want to let me go," she said. Mendez had finally started to feel like an adult, but her mom still treated her like a child.
College life is 50 percent academic and 50 percent life lessons, said Adam Williams, a housing director at Regent. But many parents struggle adjusting to the changes that come when children go to college, resulting in parental involvement that borders on being unhealthy, he said. Williams knows of a few students who are so dependent on their parents for direction that they don't even read their own e-mails. They forward messageshaving to do with their housing expenses to their parents and wait for them to send back instructions on what to do.
While some universities have found excessive parental involvement detrimental, Baylor University, in Waco, Tex., embraces it. Baylor has a "partnership with parents" which dates back to the 1970s, said Martha Lou Scott, associate vice president for Student Life. Instead of trying to cut parents off from students, Baylor developed programs to teach parents how to coach their students. The school also established an office of Student and Family Relations to give parents seeking advice someone to talk to.
While Baylor embraces the parental involvement, Scott says, "we don't want the parent to be the student. We want the parents to know where to send their students." Scott only worries about parental involvement when parents are reluctant to allow their students to "stumble and learn." Making mistakes is part of learning and growing, she said.