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Helicopter parents are usually more educated than their less involved counterparts. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Helicopter parents are usually more educated than their less involved counterparts. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Back to School

You’re not a helicopter parent just because you care Add to ...

What is the first thing parents do when they meet their child’s new teacher? Some will ask for an e-mail address, others a phone number. These same parents will plan a year’s worth of extracurricular activities – even as they wonder if they are giving their children enough room to make their own decisions.

So at what point does parental involvement shift from what is called “concerted cultivation” to “helicopter parenting”?

Parents act on behalf of their children in a thousand ways, providing sage advice that may or may not be taken, and guiding them through the messy obstacle course from childhood to adulthood. They also intervene in their children’s relationships with educators.

Called “concerted cultivation” by Annette Lareau, sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, parents who are especially good at navigating these relationships tend to be from middle and upper-class backgrounds and are university educated.

In 2011, the term “helicopter parent” was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The term pathologizes a parent for being too proficient at this kind of care and being overly involved in the life of his or her child.

Take the much-talked about case of the young woman who was offered a job, only to have the offer rescinded after her mom called to inquire about work conditions . Then there’s the case of Aubrey Ireland, a senior at University of Cincinnati who filed and won a civil stalking order against her parents in 2012. They showed up on campus, followed her around, and engaged in a bit of cyber-monitoring, among other things.

None of the above behaviours is appropriate. But other than the tiny percentage of parents who push heli-parenting to the point of making headlines, what new dynamics are at play?

Extreme connectivity: Dr. Richard Mullendore, professor at the University of Georgia, has dubbed the cellphone the “world’s longest umbilical cord.” Now, this connection can be used continuously, and not simply for phone calls. Young people live online and share infinitesimal and intimate details, motivated in part by reality TV and the catharsis provided by public exposure. Extreme connectivity makes parents feel like they should be commenting on their children’s lives 24/7, and it enables them to do so.

Extreme economics: It’s no secret that Generation Y, the millennials, aren’t likely to earn or match their parents’ financial achievements. In Canada, 15 to 24-year-olds face an unemployment rate of 14.3 per cent, more than double the rate for adults aged 25 to 54 and those 55 or older. An even greater struggle for Canadians under 30 is finding work in their field of study: 25 per cent of millennials with a university degree are employed full-time in jobs that do not require their level of education; for 25– to 29-year-olds, this number increases to one in three. Those who attempt to gain employment without a college or university degree find it increasingly difficult to do so.

Coupling potential student loan debt and the effects of unemployment and underemployment with increased access to and expectations for connection, makes the landscape for millennials less reliable and more complicated than the one baby boomers experienced. And, yes, this is fueling increased intergenerational dependence and parental involvement.

While there is no question that the individual behaviours of parents and children are subjects of interesting and urgent research – for example, the links between heli-parenting and child anxiety and depression – we don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist in a world that has enabled us both to feel more connected than we were and to crave that connection. That world has also changed the reward structure for university education, making it more difficult to trade a degree for a career. Perhaps because they fear the future their children face, parents intervene on their behalf.

Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur is Associate Professor in the UBC Faculty of Education, Education and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education.

How to stay connected – but not too close – to your university-aged student

1. Your student might not always be available when you are. Start a conversation after the first week or two and establish a weekly check-in time.

2. Don’t be alarmed if your son/daughter doesn’t answer your calls right away. Even if you are familiar with your student’s class schedule, he or she may be in the library, playing a rec sport, or having dinner with friends. Allow for some time for your call to be returned before you start to worry.

3. Your son or daughter misses you, even if such feelings go unspoken. Send care packages with things like homemade snacks, new socks and photos from home. Don’t forget to send a few extra goodies to share with friends.

4. Your student’s grades may drop relative to past performance, and that’s normal. It’s difficult to adjust to university life and there is a learning curve associated with university-level work. There are many places to study in residence and a variety of academic support programs in place to promote and teach academic success.

5. If your student is struggling in some way, there is someone at university who can try to help. Encourage your son or daughter to utilize these resources. The most helpful thing a parent can do is offer a listening ear, help your student think through their options, and coach them about how to ask someone on campus for assistance. As much as you’d like to alleviate their stress, you cannot (and should not) fix this for them.

– Cate Morrison, assistant director of residence life at the University of British Columbia

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