Letting Go

September 30, 2005

Before they were even born, we started playing Mozart for them. When they arrived, we hung "Baby-on-Board" signs on our car windows and strapped them into car seats. We enrolled them in baby groups, quizzed them with flash cards and drove them to play dates. They were fitted for bicycle helmets, learned to play the violin and joined a soccer team ... all before they went to kindergarten.

Letting Go

Today they're leaving their overscheduled, parent-managed lifestyles for college. The scene at the door to residence hall rooms isn't much different from those kindergarten classrooms. Their dads give them hugs, their moms shed a few tears and the children set off to find their independence.
For some parents, giving up their roles as scheduler and protector doesn't come easily. Although the majority of parents find a way to let go, many stick close by. They hover over their children, ready to swoop in and rescue them, earning them the name "helicopter parents." Their rotor blades can be heard over campuses nationwide, and Baylor is no exception.
"Most of our parents are fantastic," says Dub Oliver, interim vice president for student life. "But we have seen a dramatic increase of parental involvement and engagement in students' lives. Sometimes parents, well-meaning parents, cross the line." 
Although parental involvement is not new, Oliver says he saw a change around 2000, when the first of the millennial generation became college freshmen. "Children were a focus of parents for this generation," says Oliver. "Not to say that parents haven't always been focused on their children, but this generation seems more intensely centered on them." 
When that focus goes overboard, it can result in parents stepping in where students should be doing things for themselves. This may be especially tempting for Baylor parents, who have seen their high-achieving students enjoy a steady diet of success.
"Incoming Baylor students have done a lot of things," Oliver says. "They've often gotten everything they've tried out for, and they're in a whole different context now. When they don't get what they set as a goal, it's disappointing." 
Most students will share those disappointments with their parents. Most parents will sympathize. Helicopter parents will take action and want the results overturned.
"We had one student going through sorority recruitment who didn't get into the one she wanted," Oliver says. "The student was upset, but it was her mother who called asking for something to be done about it. She said her daughter's entire Baylor career was ruined. We never heard from the student; we even tried to make contact with her. It became the mother's issue rather than the student's. The parent would not let it go, even after the daughter had."

Phoning Home
Academic adviser Vincent Carpenter, BA '89, MA '00, MDiv '05, has seen his share of helicopter parents during his five years in the position. "It's amazing the number of parents who come to sessions with their student saying, 'This is what I'm taking next semester,' or 'We're majoring in this.' The parent has completely taken over the student's role," he says.
And although most parents only attend their student's initial advising session in person, many attend subsequent sessions via cell phones. "Some students will just stop and take out their phone to call home," says Carpenter, who recently left Baylor to work full time in the ministry. "They're so used to their parents choosing for them that they need that contact before making a decision." 
Carpenter says that the majority of Baylor parents are doing a good job of helping their students develop independence by communicating in advance and being interested observers. He says it's not uncommon, though, for students who made straight A's in high school, with little studying, to end up on academic probation in their first year. The work is more difficult, and the study habits are different.
"That's when parents who normally wouldn't interfere can come unglued," he says. "While they may have been talking to their students every day, they probably haven't been told about the slumping grades. Probation comes as a shock, and parents start doing things like calling professors or department chairs in an outrage, wondering why no one told them. Well, privacy laws prevent us from telling them grades or whether their student has been showing up to class." 
Parents need to really listen to what their students are saying, he says. They should offer advice, but also be willing to accept that their advice won't always be taken. 
"It can be hard as a parent, but we need to let our children experience consequences, rather than rescuing them from their decisions," says the father of five. "Even failure is healthy in some settings, and Baylor is one of those safe places. Parents can actually help their children by allowing them to make mistakes."

Taking the long view
Helen Benedict, professor of psychology and neuroscience, agrees that most parents have sent their children to Baylor ready to make their own way. "The majority of young people are responsible and ready to take care of themselves," she says. Nor is helicopter parenting a recent phenomenon: "We just have a clever name for them now, and we recognize it more," she says.
Benedict has noticed, though, a trend in society that makes this type of parenting more acceptable. She says members of the millennial generation have a victim mentality and a belief that their problems are always someone else's fault. That mentality has created a sense of entitlement, she says.
"Several students have told me that their parents actually budget money (as much as $500 per year) for parking tickets," Benedict says. "Parents don't expect them to park in less desirable spots or to walk. Those parents are doing too much." 
She encourages parents to try to look objectively at the actions they are taking. "If you're playing a role in jobs that students need to be doing on their own, you're probably too involved. We need to teach children to cope and adapt to life's changes." 
Other examples of overinvolvement would be if parents are setting up class schedules, calling professors to explain students' behavior or performance or intervening in roommate disputes.
"I don't think some parents are taking the long view," she says. "Helicopter parents create boomerang children, who are going to return to live at home after college. They have to -- there are very few employers who want an employee whose mom has to run interference for them." 
Benedict understands that most helicopter parents are well-intentioned and that many sheltering instincts come from very real events, such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"People want to protect their loved ones," she says. "We don't have any control over things like terrorists, but we do have control over our kids' immediate surroundings. Maybe it's made us more fearful and hover a little more. And maybe it's a transitional thing, and we'll see it decrease."

Setting boundaries
Worrying may decrease, but technology continues to increase. In addition to the care packages and letters parents have always sent to their college students, parents of the millennial generation can e-mail, instant message or use cell phones to keep in touch.
Lisa and Dennis Jones of Leonard, Texas, plan to use cell phones for daily contact with their daughter Amy, a freshman. "We plan to hear from her every night," said Lisa as she helped unload her daughter's belongings on move-in day. "If we don't hear from her, we'll probably call to check up." 
Although Amy doesn't think of her parents as hovering, she said they were involved in her choice of colleges. "After I decided what I wanted to study, Mom is the one who researched everything on the Internet to find out which colleges offered what I wanted," said Amy, who plans to major in forensic science.
Although the Joneses plan to stay involved in Amy's college career, they have set boundaries for themselves. "We'll visit a lot, and we plan on having a lot of contact," Dennis said. "But as far as decisions, it's up to her. We're taking her lead. We'll counsel, but it's really up to her."
Even though her parents were feeling emotional as they moved Amy into her residence hall, they found it easier to let go because they felt their daughter was comfortable. "Amy's really upbeat and cheerful. She's ready to be here and that's good," Dennis said.
Lisa's anxieties were eased by the fact that Amy was finding connections, and so was she. Learning about the Baylor Parents League at orientation provided her some peace of mind.
"I had the warm-fuzzies after that," said Lisa. "If Amy gets sidetracked, we know where to go to get her back on track; and if I get sidetracked, I have a phone number to call to get myself back on track." 
The Help Line is just one of the ways parents can stay connected and focused, says Judy Maggard, director of parent programs. 
"Baylor's philosophy is that we want to embrace parents as part of a team we have at the University to help their student be successful," she says.
And because parents know their children better than anyone on campus, they are a valuable part of that team, Maggard says. "When students hit a bump, they call home. If we've done our job educating parents about what support is out there, they'll have the information to help their student navigate the waters. Our job is to provide a point of contact for the parents, a place they can go to get accurate information." 
Although she agrees some parents can be overzealous, Maggard believes that arming parents with information can help them find an appropriate degree of involvement. Both the Parents League's Help Line and its Web site offer parents a wide range of information. 
"You can call to ask for advice on how to handle academic problems, where to guide your student. Or a lot of people just call for general information, like how to get a hotel room for Parents Weekend," Maggard says.
There also are 45 Parents League chapters nationwide, where parents can get information from other parents and plan events to support their students. "Parents are making a huge investment in this process, and it's right to include them," Maggard says. "Hopefully, they understand our boundaries, and we understand their concerns." 
Oliver concurs that information and understanding are key to a successful Baylor experience for both the student and parents. "We want parents to bless their students as they go, and share that with them," he says. "Students want to know that their parents love them and support their decisions." 
He also understands that sometimes the hardest thing for parents to accept is what is right for the student. "We want Baylor to be home for these students," Oliver says. "Not that they should forget where they came from, of course. That's so important. But when they feel like Baylor is their home, they're going to have an incredibly powerful experience." 

Baylor Parents League

Parents League Help Line: 1-888-BUPL-557