Tuesday, August 30, 2005

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Copter parents at two o'clock!!

When I was teaching at the University of Colorado, I had to deal with a student who wanted me to change his/her class grade from a C+ to a B-. The student's primary argument was not that s/he deserved a better grade for the class, but that his/her GPA had dropped below the minimum required to qualify for CU-Boulder's study abroad programs. Needless to say, this was not a terribly persuasive argument -- not to mention grossly unfair to all the students who had actually earned their B- grades -- so I said no.

I said no several times.

A week after the student's final plea, I received another phone call asking me to reconsider -- from the student's mother. The mother evinced little concern about her child's academic performance -- she just wanted to see her progeny spend a semester in Florence. I was more than a little surprised by the attempt, and got off the phone as quickly as possible.

I haven't had a problem like that with a parent since the start of the millennium, but I tell this story because of Justin Pope's AP story on 'copter parents.' What are these creatures?:

They're called "helicopter parents," for their habit of hovering, hyperinvolved, over their children's lives.

Here at Colgate University, as elsewhere, they have become increasingly bold in recent years, telephoning administrators to complain about their children's housing assignments, roommates and grades.

Recently, one parent demanded to know what Colgate planned to do about subpar plumbing her daughter encountered on a study-abroad trip to China.

"That's just part of how this generation has been raised," said Mark Thompson, head of Colgate's counseling services. "You add a $40,000 price tag for a school like Colgate, and you have high expectations for what you get."

For years, officials here responded to such calls by biting their lips and making an effort to keep parents happy.

But at freshman orientation here last week, parents heard a different message: Helicopter parenting has gotten out of hand, and it undermines non-classroom lessons on problem-solving, seeking help and compromising that should be part of a college education.

Those lessons can't be learned if the response to every difficulty is a call to mom and dad for help.

"We noticed what everybody else noticed. We have a generation of parents that are heavily involved in their students' lives, and it causes all sorts of problems," said Dean Adam Weinberg.

College should be "a time when you go from living in someone else's house to becoming a functioning, autonomous person," Weinberg added.

Read the whole thing. I'm not completely unsympathetic to the parental position -- on the list of parental sins, being "heavily involved" in their childrens' lives is far down the queue. Plus, when parents are spending the kind of money for higher education they are spending now, a little monitoring of one's investment is to be expected.

That said, wheedling for better grades on behalf of their children would seem to cross the line. In Clueless, at least the father had the good sense to make his daughter Cher argue her own case.

posted by Dan on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM


Read this one today, and another similar one last week in the WSJ. I'm sure the colleges have a point. I have several stories akin to yours, Dan, from my teaching days.

But if this is the new monster on campus, doesn't anyone find it just a teensy bit ironic that college and university administrators are urging parents to let their kids breathe free and grow when these same schools have perfected the art of infantilization, mollycoddling, and coccooning? This trend emerged out of legitimate concerns--schools traditionally act in loco parentis, and in our lawsuit-mad age it only makes sense to keep kids where you can keep an eye on them. But schools quickly cottoned on that the closer wraps they kept on students, the more of their money they could extract. At Duke students are virtual prisoners (yes, the cage is gilded, but...) and I doubt they are alone.

The ultimate irony: all of this feather-nesting has contributed heftily to the expense of college eduation today, leading to parents treating the whole transaction as a monetary exchange (any wonder?), leading to college administrators crying foul. Not much pity to go around here, I'm afraid.

posted by: Kelli on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

What I find ironic is that when in college this generation of parents forced colleges to retreat from the in loco parentis policy. Goose? Meet gander.

posted by: Richard Heddleson on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

Kelli is on the mark re: parents (and students) treating their college education like a simple monetary exchange.

The story Dan relates is the tip of the iceberg. I have encountered, both at a major research university and a smaller college, parents writing, and indeed plagiarizing, term papers for their children, and then personally intervening on behalf of "their child's work" regarding the grade. The former case happened to a colleague of mine; the latter happened to me. After confronting a student about his/her plagiarism, the student informed me that his/her parent must have put that in while "editing," and later that night I was confronted via telephone by the angry parent. The parent proceded to inform me that copying a paragraph, with no quotes or citations, from a website was not plagiarism. FERPA gives faculty a good out when a parent contacts a prof without the student's permission, but I simply refuse to talk to parents about grades, plagiarism, etc. at this point. They can take it up with the Dean, who understands and supports my position.

posted by: anon on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

Over at chicagoboyz the same subject arose. My take was a parent's view, citing reasons why it occurs.

I agree with the comments against parental whining, grade wheedling, plagiarizing, and other pathologies of overinvolvement. I know this happens both at high school and college levels.

If only there were some recogntiion for real merit, instead of ribbons for self-esteem. Michael Barone covered some of this ground in his excellent book "Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future". He argues that the shift from a coddled youth to the harsh realities of the adult working world is abrupt, and does many a child a disservice. The coddling has now diffused into higher education. I am afraid to hear that employers are getting calls from mom and dad after graduation.

posted by: Kevin F on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

$40,000 for a year of undergrad education? Have we all gone mad.

At any rate, in 2+ decades the only calls I've ever had from parents were because the student was hospitalized after an auto accident or something else dire.

Any parent who wanted to talk to me about grades would instantly be referred to the Dean's office, there are plenty of underworked people there who would have time to chat. :))

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

I remember reading on another blog (sorry, don't remember where) recently about an instance of a post-collegiate copter parent. The mother of a recently hired newspaper employee called to harangue the supervisor of the aforementioned employee about a recent performance review.

posted by: Hal Duston on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

"The mother of a recently hired newspaper employee called to harangue the supervisor of the aforementioned employee about a recent performance review.

Aaaaiiieeee !!
How horrible. So when was he canned? Immediately, or after a 'grace' period?

posted by: Kevin F on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

There is parental involvement, and parental involvement. In Clueless, Cher's father advises a prospective boyfriend, "I've got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anyone would miss you." It's one of the great lines in modern cinema. It also sounds like something I would say.

On the other hand, the Cher character in that movie was only 16. Above a certain age, one would think whatever advantages might accrue from having a parent overhead would be more than offset by the fear of being called a mama's boy, wallflower, wimp, sissy, and various other less polite things along that line. My admittedly less than comprehensive observation has been that there is no more potent or more dreaded source of potential humiliation for teenagers than their parents.

On the other hand, this is probably not true for everyone, and young people who dread being embarrassed by their parents are probably more sensitive to the issue than any of the people they know. After all, these days the major political parties nearly always choose Presidential nominees who are pretty much mama's boys, and no one seems to mind. Dan may want to keep a weather eye out for his Colorado student, who may at this moment be planning the first of many election campaigns, to be contested with mother in tow.

posted by: Zathras on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

"...I had to deal with a student who wanted me to change his/her class grade from a C+ to a B-. The student's primary argument was not that s/he deserved a better grade for the class, but that his/her GPA had dropped below the minimum..."

We probably won't be able to fix the endemic personality disorders that our affluence has saddled us with until we return to the use of English and the clear thinking that would entail. 's/he' and 'his/her' are grotesque, even if they were employed in some attempt to hide someone's identity.

Please, help.

posted by: Don McArthur on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

One time, when I was an associate at a law firm, one of the summer associates (who had been struggling much of the summer) brought her mother in to the firm over one weekend to help her finish one of her last projects. It was never clear whether the mother's help was secretarial or substantive, but it was seen as a bad omen. She got a permanent offer nonetheless, since it was easier for the firm to deal with a bad associate than the bad publicity that come with a low offer rate. Sure enough, however, she was quickly fired when it came to light that she never sat for the bar exam, on account of her never having finished one last paper at law school and thus not graduating. Last I heard, she was working as a fitness instructor.

posted by: Tom T. on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

Nothing new here. I still remember freshman year at the U of C when a very personable young lady began unpacking in her new Shorey House abode, followed 15 minutes later by her father's repacking over mutterings of "no daughther of mine's going to live in a concrete walled prision", never to return. 1975.

posted by: Jon on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

I have a friend who's engaged to a rather nice young woman who's studying to be a doctor. He and this girlfriend (pre-engagement) had a fight, and in the middle of it, she stepped out to call her mother on the cell phone. I'm hoping this was a one-time thing. But is that what these kids are going to do when faced with problems in any relationships? Call home to Mommy? A marriage is made up of two people, not two people and four parents.

posted by: Eh... not so much on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

In that case, I shouldn't be surprised to lear we're talking two people and 6 or more parental units.

posted by: Richard Heddleson on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

This is not so much a case of 'helicopter parents', but Mobius Stripper has a disturbingly hilarious collection of student tales on her blog. Click here, here, or here if you're in the mood for a good cringe.

posted by: Independent George on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

Not too long ago, I saw a story posted (and I wish I could find it again) about a couple of college kids who got their parents to call the dean over the issue of a professor expressing views they didn't like. Apparently the prof had worn a peace symbol button on his lapel while teaching math, and after class these two students (who were in ROTC, and wearing the uniform at the time) came up and told him that he should support the troops. He asked them how wearing a peace symbol was evidence of opposition to the troops, but they weren't able to provide an explanation and went away. Later, he got a call from the dean saying that their parents had complained. It's nice to know that the military is teaching young people to be self-reliant adults.

posted by: Crane on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

I recall an open day for prospective students when a girl showed up with the overbearing mother from hell. She would not let her daughter get a word in edgewise. She kept saying that "we" were considering this program or that, when finally one of the academics present (I am sad to say it was not me) said, "So, you are both starting university?" She stormed off, mad as could be, looking for a dean to complain to, and I still remember the smile on the daughter's face.

posted by: William Sjostrom on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

As a sometime teaching assistant who is also the daughter of a copter mom (whose meddling sometimes drives me nuts), I keep in mind that some students might in fact be mortified to learn their parents are contacting me "on their behalf." Sometimes parents see intervening as a favor. How does it come across to a student? "I don't believe that you're capable of taking care of yourself." I feel for those students. And I don't change their grades.

posted by: Anonymous on 08.30.05 at 08:41 AM [permalink]

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