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The Launchpad for Helicopter Parents

July 8, 2014


There’s the launchpad…I can see it from here…ooooh, now I understand…

After spending a number of years as a non-traditional student and professor, I finally have a perspective that helps me understand the full spectrum of a rare species called the helicopter parent. Merely saying the words “helicopter parent” (especially aloud, in the company of other profs/administrators) can make even the most fearless higher ed professional feel a little itchy. We’ll call it a conditioned response…

“Good grief,” I would think. “Why can’t they just let their kids grow up and take responsibility for their own stuff? This sort of thing gets in the way of development of autonomy and builds expectations that students do not have to think/learn/grow because someone else will do it for them!”

Hold on there top gun, it’s not that simple.

[What? Sure it is…right?]

Uh, no.

Helicopter parents can take many forms. Some are far more challenging than others are. The most challenging varieties (read “pains in the neck”) are the ones who stand out in college/university educators’ minds. These are the ones who phone/email/stalk us – or our Deans – and demand [whatever]. This variety of the helicopter parent will rant about who they are and the influence they carry, in theory to compel everyone to meet their demands – or else.


I have been fortunate to encounter few helicopter parents and proactively became well versed in FERPA early in my master’s studies. I learned how to practice said proactivity early in my doctoral fellowship. The issue was simple: the student is over 18 years of age and therefore they must grant permission before any college/university representative can speak with a parent – even if the parent is the one paying the bills. No permission, no access. It is not up to us to ascertain the dynamics of the relationship; however, it is our responsibility to comply. In other words, get the sign off and we will chat.

[It all seems so simple doesn’t it?]

Yeah, right. Remember what your Mom told you about assuming? Uh huh.

Most of the helicopter parents I have encountered understand and respect privacy compliance. The situation usually evolves into a good working relationship, fully involving the student. Many potential helicopter parents relax once they realize the student is in the good hands of an advisor who truly cares and understands. However, there are always a rare few who proceed to threaten lawsuits (jointly and severally, no less) unless they get what they want. Within the spirit of customer service, remaining calm and being as sympathetic as possible does seem to help. A little. Sometimes…

My oldest son just graduated from high school and this is the summer of college things. I have already encountered the challenge of trying to help him navigate the application/enrollment process because I do not always have access to his information. Most of the time guidance from an arm’s length works; however, there are times when it is not enough.


There I was…
Staring at the launchpad
Where all of the helicopter parents
Had gone before me.

“Ah, so this is how it happens.”

The ghosts of helicopter parents past
Raised their great chorus
And sang:

“Now you get it,
Now you see,
What it is like
To be me.”

[Whoa, dude. That is one serious epiphany.]

The helicopter parent launchpad is where [mostly] well-meaning parents stand in desperation as they try to [hopefully] help their young men and women become independent adults. Because these man-children and women-children are not quite there yet, parents can feel like they have no way to help…no control to help…no power to change. Yep. I get it. I really get it.

Choose One:

A. Recognize that all of this is part of my child’s life to manage – not mine – or
B. Become the “SpokesMom-el” for helicopter parents everywhere.

[Answer A. Definitely answer A.]

Stepping back allows me to use my superpowers for good and not [unintended] evil. Stepping back allows me to coach my son in the same way I coach my advisees and students. If I can remain in my professional mindset then I will be of greater value to my son. I hope that he will learn how to work with others to solve problems, even when he may feel like he is staring at a brick wall (we have all been there…).

My non-flight flight plan

If I don’t allow my son to grow through the academic process, I will be doing him a terrible type of disservice. Said disservice, while well-intended, has rendered many students in higher ed unable to think for themselves and solve problems unless profs tell them exactly what to do, all of the time.

In no way does this prepare our young adults to navigate life. 

It can be quite difficult to teach some students to think outside of the educational box that they have been in and perhaps even more difficult to free them to think for themselves. Thinking for oneself is an important part of the maturation process and very, very necessary from my point of view. Students who seem to feel they cannot think for themselves have most likely be discouraged from such things, which is not part of my parenting style. I’m not saying abandonment is in order. I am saying a guided transition is in order. Room to make mistakes (as safely as possible) must be part of the plan. Learning how to guide effectively is part of my process as a parent and as a professional. Learning how to be effectively guided is part of my son’s process as a fledgling grown-up and future contributor to society.

Surrounding oneself with people who know things has no downside. Ever. Informed decisions are always the best decisions, especially when one is considering taking flight.



Photo: SDASM Archives

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