Ask Emma

Advice on love and sanity for the 21st century

Helicopter Parents: Are you a drag on your children, or their only hope

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If I haven’t mentioned this before, I do some of my work at a University that shall go unnamed. I know that I’m getting old. I know that. Still. I find as I walk around the campus that at times I want to grab the unsuspecting child by their sweatshirt and say: “You poor thing. How could your parents let you go away to college and only give you flip-flops to wear? They must be monsters. Here! Here’s 20 bucks, buy yourself some shoes.” Or equally: “Aren’t you cold, you poor thing, in your basketball shorts?” What really gets to me is the yammer of voices, the unceasing chatter of young adults walking around and talking into the empty air — talking in most cases — to their Mothers, about what happened in class today, what they got on their Spanish test, what they had for breakfast.

I know, I’m old, but the unbroken apron strings are the defining condition of life on college campuses today. Just yesterday I watched as a mother about my age carried her daughter’s suitcase up the dormitory stairs while her daughter walked behind her, texting.

It’s easy to be irritated, at the same time, there are a host of theories as to what is going on here. I send you to a debate at the New York Times by educators and psychologists entitled “Have College Students Changed” which involves a number of academics, psychologists, and so-called experts. Studies show that college aged children are now more emotionally close to their parents than they were 30 years ago, and so remain more dependent, and are to some degree, unwilling to let go. As others in the debate point out, parents have invested a lot of money in these kids. Whether this disposition is a healthy one I leave to you, but it certainly has a side effect of having some parents who demand refunds from colleges from their children flunk out, as well as phone calls to professors demanding higher marks for their children since these parents are paying for results.

I found the debate interesting, but I was most moved by a comment by one of the parents who posted in. She said, and I paraphrase: “I’m a single mother. I’m raising two kids and yet my kids middle school teachers expect my kids to do 3 hours of homework, papier mache sculpture, and all manner of self-improvement projects, at home in their spare time. I’ve been pressed to be involved in my parents education every step of the way and now you blame me for being in the way.”

Something has gone off the rails here for sure. On the other hand, as another commentator points out, there are lots of cultures — Spain, Italy — where it is unusual for a child to move away from the family until they marry. They may well live at home into their early 30s. So what is so important or so necessary or so natural about being self-sufficient at 18?

Categories: General
Alistair Highet