Hovering…or stifling?

UPDATED to add a handy classification guide to Helicopter Parents – see the Postscript below.

I do seem to harp on the subject of grown kids who aren’t exactly living like adults yet – going back to their parents after college, extending their adolescence, yada yada…I realize this, and I hope it’s not bothering anyone too much, but since this is actually where my life as a parent is these days, that’s probably where my “mom-blogging” is going to end up. 🙂

I’m not sure how much of the responsibility (blame?) for this actually falls on the adult-kids themselves – it’s how they were raised. I think part of the reason I’m bothered so much by this is that I wasn’t a “helicopter parent,” and I don’t think my son would have been well-served by it if I had been. It’s not my personality to be that demanding or forward – and yes, I do perceive the over-involvement and interference of parents in their older kids’ lives as very “forward” and “demanding,” probably because it’s not in my personality and it makes me uncomfortable. (It is different when your kids are too young to speak for themselves yet, and a parent really does need to act as their champion.) I was raised by an older, less assertive generation – and while that does have definite drawbacks (self-esteem struggles, for one), it also tends to make one a little less inclined to demand one’s own way with everything all the time.

But my son’s going into a workplace with peers who were parented this way. Is he going to be at a disadvantage? Or is he going to find them spoiled, overly-entitled whiners?

On The Salary Reporter blog, Kristina Cowan recently posted about how parents who just won’t cut the cord can affect their adult children’s career prospects:

As Gen Y comes of age, parents now are showing up at business schools and in the workplace, and some say they’re hindering their adult children’s chances for success.

An Associated Press story on MSNBC.com explains:

“It has now reached epidemic proportions,” says Michael Ellis, director of career and life education at Delaware Valley College, a small, private school in Doylestown, Pa.

At the school’s annual job fair last year, he says, one father accompanied his daughter, handed out her resume and answered most of the questions the recruiters were asking the young woman. Even more often, he receives calls from parents, only to find out later that their soon-to-be college grad was sitting next to the parent, quietly listening.

Jobs counselors at universities across the country say experiences like those are now commonplace.

“My main concern is the obvious need of the students to develop their independence and confidence,” says Kate Brooks, director of the Liberal Arts Career Center at the University of Texas. “I think it’s great that parents want to share their advice — and even better that students of this age are willing to listen — but I think the boundaries get crossed sometimes.”

What can be done to stop such boundary-crossings?

Millenials themselves are best suited to prevent parents’ excessive involvement from damaging their career potential. One of (Cowan’s) sources, Anna Ivey, a Boston-based career and admissions counselor, says by leaving parents out of the equation, Millenials boost their chances of success. According to one of her blog-posts on helicopter parents:

Go against the herd. You’ll distinguish yourself in the admissions process, in school, in the hiring process, and on the job if you present yourself as an independent, mature adult and leave mommy and daddy at home.

To parents, Ivey says:

Stop infantilizing your adult children, and stop living through them vicariously. (I wonder if there is such a thing as narcissism by proxy?) You are doing them no favors by depriving them of important life skills and experiences, and you’re making them look like incapable, pampered toddlers in front of people they’re trying to impress.

I like that “narcissism by proxy” quote – I think it’s not a bad characterization of one thing that could be at the root of this sort of over-involvement. It’s really not about the kids at that point. And one result of it can be kids who aren’t about anything but themselves – witness this post from the On Balance archives (May 2006) about “Me Mother’s Day.” However, I find it interesting to read about parents complaining about their own spoiled children – they do realize how this happened, don’t they? (And full disclosure – I say “they,” but I mean “we.” I think my son’s turned out pretty well, but I know he’s not perfect, and I know there are any number of things I didn’t do “right” in raising him.)

On Writing, Work, and Weasels, Pam, a university employee, offers a perspective on what it’s like to work with these adult-kids and their parents:

Many traditional-aged college students today still do everything in conjunction with Mom and Dad. Parents are involved in choosing majors, courses and schedules. They help figure out where their student will live and how much he or she should work, if at all…

I’m not saying parental involvement in a college kid’s life isn’t a positive thing. It is. But somewhere along the way, a line between “involvement” and “control” got crossed. Parents call my office for everything.

Sometimes, the level at which some parents are involved in their kids’ college lives is scary. They either seem to be controlling the whole deal, or teaching the kid to blame everyone but him or herself when things don’t go exactly as planned.

Part of the whole college experience used to be learning independence. I wonder if these “kids,” aged 18-25, will grow up scared to call and order their own pizza because they still haven’t learned to request a copy of a transcript or talk with an instructor about a missed assignment.

About five years ago, we had a running joke. I had made a comment one day, after a particularly grueling mom-and-dad session, along the lines of:

“What the hell is going to happen when these kids graduate and go to work? Is mom going to call the boss when Little Johnny doesn’t get a promotion, hates his cube or gets told he can’t take a vacation during a particular week?”

That joke isn’t funny anymore, because in some extremes, we’ve heard that’s exactly what’s happening.

Yep, when the children of the helicopter parents graduate, a few of them ARE calling, writing and otherwise involving themselves in their adult, college-degreed child’s workplace.

It’s all about striking a balance, I guess. I’m not a parent, but I like to think that if I was I’d learn to be involved in helping my kid succeed in college and beyond, while still allowing him or her to make decisions. I’d coach in how to deal with administrative crap and the business of life, rather than trying to do it for the kid myself. I’d remind myself that this person, old enough to join the military, get married, get a job, live alone, or drink legally, should also be able to get his own lost student ID replaced or talk with a professor about making up some missed homework.

Pam may not be a parent, but it seems to me that she’s got a good handle on the basic job description. First Husband was a college professor, and while calls from his students’ parents weren’t common when he began his teaching career, they became more and more frequent over time. His standard response to parents was that since their children were over 18 and therefore legal adults, he wouldn’t discuss anything about their academics without the students’ express permission. I know he ticked off a few parents with that; I’m not sure how often their kids gave the OK for him to talk with them. (He’s actually pretty big on that “legal adult”=”real adult” thing. That’s probably a fairly strong influence on not “helicopter parenting” our son.)

I may have come across in some of my blogging about this topic as saying that parents should be focused on getting their kids grown and out the door – end of story – but that’s not exactly what I’ve meant, and I’d like to try to clarify. I do feel that it is our job as parents to prepare our children to function as adults, on their own, in a grown-up world. I do feel that if we do our best with that, they should be ready to leave the nest and start their lives on their own once they reach chronological young adulthood – for most, their early twenties and/or the end of their college years – and we should be ready to let them go. But sometimes, despite all our (and their) best efforts, that early flight might turn out to be just a hop, or a soar followed by an unexpected crash landing. And then, as parents, we’re still doing our job by welcoming them back to the nest if that’s where they want to go, helping to patch them up, and preparing them to fly out again – hopefully, stronger this time around. As parents, the door is always open. It’s not the open door that I have issues with – it’s the open floor plan that seems to be what results from hovering, helicopter parenting. Besides, isn’t being that involved in your kids’ lives far more work than a parent really needs?

POSTSCRIPT: The On Balance blog post for Friday 10/12 asks “What Kind of Helicopter Parent Are You?” Here’s a quick summary – click the link for more info.

Black Hawk Parent – Goes straight to the top when upset about treatment of child and has hard time seeing other parents’, children’s, or administrators’ perspectives.
Toxic Parent — Overly involved in child’s development to the point of occasional paranoia.
The Safety Expert — Approaches parenting as form of hypochondria.
The Consumer Advocate — Sees child as an investment and parental role as “standing up for child.” Constantly negotiating for child.
Traffic and Rescue Parent — Swoops in at first hint of trouble at school, in social life, on college campus to protect child from any form of difficulty or failure.

Perfect timing for this one – thanks, Leslie!

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  1. granted, i am 30 but I was NOT A kid with over involved parents, (or parents involved at all…) and most kids of my generation- or the generation now which is just entering/leaving college- find those kids as spoiled and unmotivated… I am not there yet, as a parent, but I try really hard to allow independence even now…

  2. one of my older daughters’ high school teachers is currently getting a lot of grief from some parents who don’t like the way he teaches. i personally overheard about an hour of it earlier this week while waiting to talk to one of the program secretaries. my daughter started talking about it this afternoon when i picked her up from orchestra rehearsal – and i mentioned some of what you’ve posted about kids moving back home, etc. because we both think that most of the problem in this situation is whiny, spoiled children. :o) so, my daughter mentioned this news article to me – i thought you might enjoy it!

  3. I think whiny and spoiled definitely covers it – and the parents play a BIG role in how kids get that way. I think, as parents, we need to accept this. But at the same time, I also feel that after awhile, you’re old enough to take responsibility for your own behavior and how you deal with the world – and change it, if necessary. But parents have to prepare their kids for that, too, and some seem to have dropped the ball there.

    Alison – Thanks for the link. I’m of Italian-American background myself (my mom’s side), but the Italians are notorious for their “mama’s boys,” so I did enjoy this story.

  4. Thanks for the mention. I love the term “black hawk parent” – I’m going to share that one with my co-workers!