Heart of the Matter

Andy Chan's Blog for Parents, Mentors and Teachers

Grounding Helicopter Parents

Every parent knows the feeling. We would do absolutely anything to help our children. There is no instinct more primal or original to our very beings than the protection and well-being of our children. This impulse is even stronger in America where our collective dream is that our children will lead ‘richer’ lives than we did. We are a nation of continuous improvement, of upward mobility, of great promise.

However, in our desire to help our children, we may be preventing the very growth and development we are hoping to promote. A Wall Street Journal Article published last month describes the challenges parents face around first-year orientation. One University of Syracuse administrator describes the current generation of parents as “the most over-involved generation of all time.” While helping our children seems natural, too much involvement can have unintended consequences. The transition to college, and specifically college orientation drop off day, is a watershed moment for re-defining your parent-child relationship in a new, meaningful way.

It’s tough to admit, but there’s a little bit of a helicopter parent inside all of us. Last year my oldest child, Alex, began college at Stanford. I wanted to give him lots of advice on how to make the most of his college experience, but my past experience of doing so often felt like I was lecturing to him. I know it’s not working when his eyes start to glass over.

Instead, I asked two mature and engaging recent college graduates to have lunch with Alex. Over lunch, I quietly listened to Caroline and Austin give Alex perspective and advice and learned a few things myself. I realized that all college students, not only my son, prefer to hear from people closer in age and experience than me.

So one of my roles now is to be a Connector for Alex – to help him be exposed to and learn from other students and young professionals. It’s from these types of conversations, Alex has begun to ask for my advice and guidance on issues like how to communicate professionally and networking etiquette. I am constantly thinking about people who I can introduce to Alex so that he exponentially increases his breadth of knowledge, especially regarding careers and the world of work.

I have also become more of a Consultant to Alex – where he is taking ownership of his actions and decisions, and I am one of several people he asks for perspective and advice. I have to remind myself that I am not the CEO of his life, even though I do sometimes feel that I am his banker – or perhaps his majority stockholder!

First-year orientation is a major milestone. It is an opportunity to break from the past and create a new relationship with your child. It can be bittersweet, but many of the best things in life emerge from challenging situations. In addition to gaining academic skills, college is a time for your child to mature into a young adult in many ways. Important life skills such as independently balancing a budget, managing time, finding solutions to everyday obstacles, etc. are just as important as the education he or she will receive. And in the area of personal and career development, we will guide them to ask and answer fundamental questions about what matters most to them and where they will find career focus and satisfaction.

Here are some tips adapted from the WSJ article to help you manage the transition.

  1. Encourage your student to tackle her problems by utilizing campus resources. Rather than diving in to solve the problem for your student, instead ask, “Who can you talk to on campus to help you with that issue?” and “What’s keeping you from taking action?” Then give her affirmation and positive feedback for taking responsibility and action – even if the outcome doesn’t turn out exactly the way you had hoped.
  2. Create a budget and financial plan with your student. Set goals in advance and hold your child accountable to the limits you set.
  3. Schedule a consistent time to communicate depending on your family needs and schedule. This can be via text, phone, Skype, email or whatever method your family prefers. Establish a habit of connecting once a day, every few days, or once a week, and commit to the schedule.
  4. Visit your student during appropriate times such as family weekend. College is designed for the students to learn and grow independently. Too much parent presence will stunt the growth process – and be pretty uncomfortable for your student.
  5. Stay informed by reading the college’s materials, blogs and social media. Be careful not to overwhelm your child with all the information at one time, for example on Family Weekend, Thanksgiving Break, or at a dinner with his dorm mates. Ease into discussions one step at a time and be an active listener by asking neutral, open-ended questions. Your tone makes a real difference.
  6. Be prepared for lots of change. One day, your child will seem very certain and then suddenly change her mind. Students gain new information and have new experiences daily, so they can vascillate on major, career, friends, clubs and other important decisions. Listen carefully and try to learn about what’s at the core of their thinking. Don’t force clarity until it’s absolutely required – and guide them to speak to professionals on campus who have the experience and perspective of seeing thousands of college students in similar situations.

One of the hardest decisions parents must make is the one to really let go. It counters every instinct we hold dear and sometimes seems to hurt more than it helps. In the end, however, your child will thank you for it. Help your child make the most of the college experience to learn and grow independently – by grounding the helicopter in you.

Category: Tips for Parents