Helicopter Parents and Collosally Crazy College Competition

Margaret K. Nelson, in her new book Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times, analyzes the rise of obsessive, controlling “helicopter” parents and how they affect the socio-economic divide. She recently sat down with Inside Higher Ed to discuss the practical implications of her research. Read the full interview at USA Today.

Q: Have parents become too involved in the process of their children’s selecting and applying to colleges? What is the appropriate level of involvement?A: My concerns center less on possible psychological harm than on social class inequities. The children of the elite have access to a whole range of resources — small counselor-student ratios, private college coaches, tutoring for SATs, excellent schools — all of which are geared to the college-admission process. These privileges — even more than the interference of parents — are what make significant differences in access to elite institutions.

My goal in Parenting Out of Control isn’t to say how to parent, but rather to understand the origins and dynamics of different parenting styles. Given that children — and parents — differ as individuals we might well ask, what, after all, does “too involved” mean? It can not mean the same thing for every parent and every child. And the same level of involvement can not be “appropriate” for all parents and children.

Q: You write that students at Middlebury “report… that they do not believe communicating with their parents more than ten times a week is too much.” How does this frequent communication seem to impact students — and what contrasts do you see between the “children of the professional middle class” and the “(relatively few) low income students,” who have a somewhat different relationship with their parents?

A: This was indeed a surprising finding. But it does not necessarily indicate a problem. Communication — even daily communication — with parents might offer students significant benefits.

Surveys conducted by my colleague, Barbara Hofer of the psychology department at Middlebury College, find no social class differences in frequency of contact between students and parents. However, both my experience and my research suggest that the content of that contact is very different for the children of the professional middle class than it is for my less privileged students. Both sets of students rely on parents for advice, consolation, and a sense of connection to home. But my more privileged students, are more likely to get parental input on their homework assignments and editorial assistance on papers; this is another form of inequity. By way of contrast, my lower-income students report not only that they are earning significant amounts of money to relieve their parents of the economic burden of having a child in college, but occasionally that they are actually sending money home. Indeed, for them, support is more often a two-way street.

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