One Day They Will Fly the Coop
What Happens When Overprotected Kids Leave Home?
Even the most coddled child has to untie the apron strings eventually. (One historical exception: When Douglas MacArthur entered West Point as a cadet, his helicopter mom moved into an apartment near the grounds, reportedly so that she could watch him study through a telescope.) Holly Schiffrin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, thinks that some parents of college students have not gotten the memo. “They call me to discuss grades, or they want my help setting schedules,” she says. “Some even monitor their kids’ diet and exercise habits.” Yet all this loving care does not always result in happier offspring, as Schiffrin discovered when she surveyed 297 students and found that the ones with controlling parents were more anxious and depressed. A separate study of 300 freshmen from Keene State College, in Keene, New Hampshire, found that heliparented students were more likely to feel angry, worried, self-conscious, and vulnerable.
Although it might sound great to have someone swoop in to take care of everything, human beings have an innate need to do things for themselves. “Competence and autonomy have been consistently associated with well-being,” says Schiffrin. “Helicopter parents undermine these ideas. They’re sending young adults the message ‘You’d better let me do it. You’re not capable of solving your own conflicts or managing your own budget.’ ” This could explain why, in a survey from the website OnlineCollege.org, one in five students thought that it would be OK to have their parents contact a prospective employer.
Constant involvement in their personal (and professional) lives might have something to do with nonstop communication. Call it a technological umbilical cord: According to the OnlineCollege.org survey, 41 percent of students text, e-mail, or call their parents daily. “When I was in college, there was one pay phone for the entire floor. I talked to my parents once a week,” says Schiffrin. “If I had a dispute with my roommate, I had to handle it. Now kids can e-mail their papers to their parents.”
And why not, if Mom and Dad are helping to pay for the class? College is expensive, says Schiffrin, and parents may want to make sure that they get a return on their investment. “There’s this academic terror that parents have for their kids,” says child psychologist Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., “and the recession adds to it.” Micromanagement is a classic way of coping with larger anxieties, he says: “When things feel out of control, we try to exert control in other ways.” But doing everything under the sun to ensure that your child gets an A in astronomy isn’t going to make you or him feel more secure. And that you can take to the bank.