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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Hovering higher

September 16, 2010

A student with parents.

Today's college students often turn to their parents first for advice and support. The U's Parent Program offers resources for parents and tips on helping their children navigate collegiate life.

Parents still highly connected to their college-aged children, but they're trying to shed the 'helicopter' label

By Rick Moore

The anecdotes about over-involved or self-absorbed parents tend to be startling. Like the one about the parent who writes the essay for her child’s scholarship application. Or the parent who, when told the dates of the University’s Parents Weekend, says that doesn’t mesh with his schedule, so how about picking another weekend?

Yes, today’s parents are much more involved with their college students’ lives than 20 or 30 years ago. But according to Marjorie Savage, director of the University’s Parent Program, most parents are doing the right things—letting their sons and daughters make their own tough decisions, while still being there for them in times of true need.

A history of involvement

Parents certainly have reason to be involved. Those footing a good share of tuition see success in college as a return on investment. Plus, they’re used to paying attention.

“Parents today have at least eight years of No Child Left Behind in their pockets [whereby] K-12 schools are telling parents how to be involved with their student—sending them emails, giving them access to their grade books, all of those very close connections,” Savage says.

Naturally, that can breed an expectation that college will be similar.

“I had an email from a dad today saying, ‘During high school we were able to look at our student’s grade book. Can we do that the college level, or do we just have to trust them?’ Savage says. “And the answer is, you do just have to trust them and get the information directly from your student, not from the University. Students have all their own information and can give it to their parents.”

While some parents feel the need to stay involved with their child’s academic and personal lives, others are aware of the reputation their generation has gained.

“I’m seeing a lot of parents who are hesitating to contact their student or the University because they’re afraid of that ‘helicopter’ label,” says Savage. “So when they should be involved (as in the case of a student who was hospitalized), they’re stepping back and thinking, ‘I don’t want anybody to call me that.’”

So, Savage says, “trying to delineate between what’s appropriate and what’s not is a real test for parents today.”

The wireless umbilical cord

Technology has aided and abetted the bonds between parents and their college students. A generation ago, students kept in touch via the occasional long-distance phone call and the even more occasional hand-written letter.

That's no longer the case.

“Parents today are much more likely to be texting,” Savage says. “They are texting more than they’re emailing. It’s approaching the level of cell phone calls.”     

And Savage says that’s okay. “It’s easy to check in with a text,” she says. “You can just say, ‘Hi, how are you doing? Things going okay?’ 'Yep, everything’s fine.’ And you don’t have that long phone conversation or the awkward ‘How do I hang up on my mom’ kind of thoughts.”

Keeping the proper distance

So, at what point should parents insert themselves in their students’ issues, academic or otherwise?

Savage says that if parents are tempted to get involved, they should ask themselves three things: Is their student asking for help? Could most students take care of the situation at hand? And is their student physically and mentally capable of making this decision right now?

“You need to trust your student and to trust the institution. As long as you know that the resources are there for students, let them deal with the issues and deal with the consequences. The hard part for parents is knowing their student has to deal with consequences. But that’s how they really learn some of the important lessons.”

For news updates and more information for parents, visit the University’s Parent Program


This story originally appeared in 2010.

Tags: Student Related Affairs

For news updates and more information for parents, visit the University’s Parent Program