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February 15, 2013

Attention helicopter parents: new study shows when it’s time to stop hovering


By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

I’ll spare you snide remarks about heli-moms and -dads. My attitude is: helicopter parenting is a modern child-rearing trend. Research supports it: involved, supportive parents set their children up for emotional and academic success. But I’m only human, so I half-laugh at heli-hectoring because, hey, it’s funny.

Yesterday at work, I discovered everyone on our edit team has a very different take on helicopter parenting. One editor thinks being a helicopter parent is detrimental and borderline loony. I think it’s the norm among involved parents – with a handful of extreme cases who are to blame for negative headlines. Another thinks helicoptering has its place but crosses a line when it keeps kids from being held accountable for their actions. We all agree on one thing, though. It’s analogous to calling yourself “lazy.” Sure, you can call yourself “lazy,” or in this case, a helicopter parent, but it’d be insulting for someone else to do so.

Whatever you think of hovering over younger kids, a new study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies suggests there are real risks for older (read: young adult) helicoptered kids. It seems many parents never quite figure out when to back off. Case in point: recently I cited a New York Times story about a mother who hired a tutor to help her struggling NYU freshman: “[the tutor] spent about 30 hours helping [the freshman] manage her schedule, pick classes and generally feel more comfortable in her new life," reported Abby Ellin. Is this helpful, or did the collegiate's mom simply hire a surrogate helicopter?

Helicopter parenting in college

“Helping or Hovering? The Effects of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well-Being,” set out to tackle this question: Is the hovering helping or harming kids once they're in college?

“Parental involvement is related to many positive child outcomes,” the researchers concede. But when, they ask, does this involvement become developmentally inappropriate? College, it seems, is a common-sense answer. So they set out to test the theory that hovering into adolescence and early adulthood negatively impacts a coed’s self-determination – the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness – leading to depression and reduced sense of satisfaction with their lives.

They surveyed 297 undergrads (12% male, 88% female). Researchers based their questions on “behaviors identified by college administrators as overly involved and inappropriate for the parents of college-aged students,” such as too much control (“My mother monitors who I spend time with.”) and inappropriately acting on their now-adult-student’s behalf (“If I were to receive a low grade that I felt was unfair, my mother would call the professor.”) Then students rated their life satisfaction, anxiety, depression, autonomy, competence, and connectedness. The results? Researchers tied helicopter parenting to college students’ reduced well-being – specifically, their lack of autonomy and competence lead to depression and lower life satisfaction.  

When – if ever – should the hovering become less frequent?

We all draw our own lines, which is why I found the researcher's questions fascinating. For instance, if my mom had contacted one of my professors about a grade, I would’ve been mortified; but I don’t think a curfew when you're home from college is out of the question. In your family, which of these behaviors would be acceptable – and which should you consider scaling back?

Ready, set, ask yourself…

Here are the questions the researchers used to evaluate overly controlling and autonomy-building behaviors.

  1. My mother had/will have a say in what major I chose/will choose.
  2. My mother encourages me to discuss any academic problems I am having with my professor.
  3. My mother monitors my exercise schedule.
  4. When I am home with my mother, I have a curfew.
  5. My mother has given me tips on how to shop for groceries economically.
  6. My mother encourages me to make my own decisions and take responsibility for the choices I have made.
  7. My mother regularly wants me to call or text her to let her know where I am.
  8. My mother encourages me to deal with interpersonal problems between myself and my roommate or friends on my own.
  9. If I were to receive a low grade that I felt was unfair, my mother would call the professor.
  10. My mother monitors my diet.
  11. My mother monitors who I spend time with.
  12. My mother encourages me to keep a budget and manage my own finances.
  13. My mother calls me to track my schoolwork (i.e., how I’m doing in school, what my grades are like, etc.).
  14. If I am having an issue with my roommate, my mother would try to intervene.
  15. My mother encourages me to choose my own classes.

Do these helicoptering indicators (#1, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14) sound uncomfortably familiar? If so, it may be time to start building your child's road to eventual independence. After all, the researchers note, it’s not just the child who suffers when the hovering never ceases: “Over-parenting” can negatively affect a parent’s mental health and has been tied to the parent’s “lower satisfaction with life,” too. Which, admittedly, isn't funny at all.


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Any student who comes home from college should be respectful of the time they come home and the hour at which their friends visit/leave. That is NOT helicoptering or hovering: that's called respect.

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