Helicopter Parenting

To the editor of the Chicago Tribune, 27 October 2005

In her 16 October’s Perspective column, “When did caring become control?,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims paints an unflattering picture of parents who question college administrators. “Why are parents asking us so many questions?” she wonders. To answer her own question, she puts parents on the psychiatrist’s couch and indulges in arm-chair sociology: Boomers can’t stop questioning authority and are over-protective.

I can't speak for all parents, but I think there’s a simpler answer. I’m paying over $60,000 a year for two kids in college. If I ask questions, maybe it’s because I’d like to know what I’m getting for my money. If I spent $60,000 for a car, you can bet I’d be asking the salesperson questions.

Universities are service providers. Just because they operate in ivory towers doesn’t mean they don’t have to account for the services they provide and the prices they charge.

It’s hard to know which schools provide good services at reasonable prices. The federal government insists that high schools make student test scores public. Colleges, however, refuse to publish their students’ average LSAT, MCAT or other standardized test scores. If you ask for them, you get the Lythcott-Haims treatment: MYOB. Knowing those college scores would be a useful piece of consumer information.

Colleges won’t admit that tenure can protect faculty deadwood as well as academic freedom. What do they do to ensure quality teaching by tenured faculty? How does a student avoid getting stuck paying for deadwood?

Finally, cost-cutting doesn’t seem to be part of the higher-education business model. For example, men’s football, basketball and ice hockey are the only intercollegiate money-making sports, and that’s only at a few large schools. Still, many schools continue to lose millions in providing other intercollegiate sports for relatively few students.

If college prices keep going up faster than inflation, Ms. Lythcott-Haims can expect even more questions from parents.

Robbing students

Nov 1, 2005. Chicago Tribune pg. 18 Thomas Simpson, Assistant chair, Department of French and Italian, Northwestern University. (Copyright 2005 by the Chicago Tribune)

In his Oct. 27 letter to the editor, "Parents of young adults have reasons to hover," admitted hovering parent Jack Martens entirely misses the point about what's wrong with parents who constantly question college teachers and administrators. "Helicopter Parents," as they're called, aren't really a problem for administrators, who would be happy to open a new office, perhaps named Parent Relations, passing on the costs to the parents themselves in the form of higher tuition, all in the name of providing service to consumers.

The problem with hovering parents, instead, is the effect they have on their own children, our students. We instructors at top colleges are facing increasing numbers of students who have never had an experience that wasn't selected and filtered by their parents. They appear to believe that doing exactly what they're told constitutes excellence. Their parents seem to think that the function of teachers is to increase their children's self-esteem and marketability. The most valuable service any teacher can provide to students is to tell them the truth. The truth is that high tuition does not mean that a student's schoolwork is any good. Paying big bucks does not compensate for skipping class, poor reading, sloppy work or lack of imagination. Hovering parents ultimately rob their own children of experience while reinforcing an unjustified sense of entitlement.

In his letter, Martens says that his tuition payments should, in effect, guarantee bright futures for children.

As a college teacher as well as a parent of a college student, I'm grateful that U.S. universities are still, to some degree, meritocracies. Students with initiative tend to succeed, while passive students settle into the background, regardless of how much they pay.

To the editor of the Chicago Tribune, 5 November 2005 (Unpublished)

My 27 October Voice of the People letter did not support hovering, overly-intrusive parents who ruin their children’s opportunities for growth in college. Until presented with hard data to the contrary, we can assume they’re relatively rare.

“Helicopter parent” is sneeringly spoken. It aims to discourage questions from both obnoxious parents and intelligent consumers. Academia’s message to both is clear: MYOB. I hope that as the price of a college education continues to increase faster than inflation, more students and parents will begin to assert their roles as consumers.

It’s odd that in a time of rampant college grade inflation a Northwestern professor can still write to the Tribune (1 November): “The most valuable service any teacher can provide to students is to tell them the truth.” Is handing out mostly As and Bs telling students the truth? How will students learn if they’re fit for a particular subject area? Grade inflation also works to leave parents in the dark. Valen Johnson, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Michigan who studied this issue, dubs it a “crisis.” Consumers should worry.

Google all you want, but you won’t find many universities reporting the standardized test scores achieved by their students at the end of their study. Again: MYOB. (See details)You’ll get the same answer if you ask for the worksheet information on athletic opportunities submitted to the federal government.

In calling parents “helicopters,” universities accuse them of trying to select and filter their children’s experiences, thereby undermining opportunities to learn self-sufficiency. Yet, university study abroad programs frequently send along “helicopter professors,” who are quite willing to have their foreign trip paid for while they shepherd students. Suddenly it’s not helicoptering, but providing an important enrichment aspect to the study abroad experience.