Avoiding helicopter hell

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is the ninth of my opinion columns, Avoiding helicopter hell, originally published October 20, 2006.

Needless to say, I had someone very specific in mind while I was writing this column, but I’ve since forgotten who it was! But everyone who went to college knew someone like this: someone whose parents were far, far too involved in their lives.

Have you ever known a student who is so dependent on his parents, it seems as though they might as well move into the dorm room with him? The one whose parents are constantly calling, sending packages or even coming by to drop off stuff, helping out with homework and basically refusing to leave him alone? If so, you know all too well the pitfalls of helicopter parents.

Helicopter parent are those who constantly hover and obsess over their children. Helicopter parents insist on intervening in their children’s lives long after they are old enough to take care of things on their own. In other words, helicopter parents are simply unable or unwilling to let their children grow up.

Helicopter parenting is at its worst when it continues into college. This is the time for most high schoolers to grow up to become independent adults. Many of the most important lessons in college aren’t taught in the classroom: learning how to live on your own, how to manage your finances, even how to take care of yourself because there isn’t always a nearby parent you can turn to. But helicopter parents take away all of these valuable lessons and reduce college to just the academics.

At Family Weekend last weekend, I was shocked to hear Mary Matalin’s (James Carville’s wife) comments on helicopter parenting. She was speaking to a crowd consisting mostly of parents of students. She went through a laundry list of typical symptoms of helicopter parenting – all of which she appears to have – and offered her rationalization on how each was actually a good thing. She admits that it might seem like she is a servant to her children, but she prefers to think of herself as “executive assistant.”

Granted, Matalin’s children aren’t yet of college age, but she was consciously offering up reasons for her behavior to parents of college students, and she made no indication that she would act any differently as her kids got older. Helicopter parenting (or “smothering mothering,” as she also referred to it) is not a good thing, and she shouldn’t be encouraging it merely because she cannot help herself. I only hope that none of my fellow students experience a sudden increase in parental intrusion because their parents attended this event and took the advice to heart without considering the downsides.

If you are the unfortunate victim of helicopter parenting, there are some things you can do. Take charge of everything in your life your parents are handling, such as your finances. Don’t let your parents constantly “help” you with homework, studying or setting your schedules. They don’t have to know every little detail about what you were doing at 3 a.m. on Saturday morning. Gently remind them you’re old enough to be drafted into the armed forces, and that if 18-year-old soldiers can handle the constant danger of improvised explosive devices in Iraq you can certainly handle the constant danger of improvised pop quizzes in college. All parents realize that part of rearing children is eventually letting them go; some just have tighter grips than others.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with talking with your parents. You probably have some sort of a connection with them. And there’s nothing wrong with asking for money (let’s face it, college is expensive, and we all need all the help we can get). But don’t allow them to run your lives. Sure, it may be convenient in the short term, getting them to do all of that menial work you’d rather not do on your own, but how are you going to feel when you’re 30 and your parents are still managing your bank account?

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