No More Helicopter Parents

We’ve all heard about helicopter parents hovering over their students and ensuring everything goes right for them. If things go awry, they are there to pick up the phone, put a post on the Facebook group, or write a scathing email. I’ve also heard of the snowplow parents, they push all obstacles out of the way to make sure their student has a smooth experience. 

These characterizations demean parents and set up the “us vs. them” dynamic in many pockets throughout higher education. I have found that these cartoon-like simplifications of the parent-student relationship open our parent and family constituents to harsh judgment and, ultimately, avoidance of them and their experience. I have found that in over 30 years of experience working with parents when I see the behaviors that cause some folks to ascribe the “helicopter” or “snowplow” label, there is almost always so much more to uncover. 

I am not a counselor, but my experience and training have taught me to listen intently and to ask probing questions. When a parent was described as a “pain”, “annoying”, and “like a dog without a bone” concerning her relentless criticism of our dining services, I called and had a conversation with her about it. After about 30 minutes of listening to a litany of complaints, the mom began to cry. She choked out a revelation--during her daughter’s high school years, she almost died from an eating disorder. This mom was not hovering or smoothing out her daughter’s experience because she was a meddling parent. She was in the business of saving her daughter’s life. Her trauma had not been erased by our assurances that her student would be able to choose from a variety of healthy food options. 

By reaching out and intentionally listening, I have discovered, time and again, much deeper concerns than the ones that were angrily expressed to the staff at our college. When we, as parent and family professionals, are there to listen and be willing to hear what is often lingering deep below the sounds of the helicopter blades or the roar of the snowplow, we help the parent, the family, and ultimately, our biggest concern--our student.

Maureen Hurley works at Emerson College in Boston where she engages parents and families as the Director, Student Transitions and Family Programs. She is also a member of the AHEPPP Board of Directors.

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