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Parents’ role for college needs to be more advisory

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on April 19, 2012)

In my previous column, I alluded to the negative effects that being a “helicopter parent” can have on a child. When parents constantly intervene to prevent a child from dealing with difficulties and setbacks, they deny that child the opportunity to learn important lessons about personal effort and persistence.

In writing that, I was reminded of Lori Gottlieb’s article in the July/August 2011 issue of The Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” Gottlieb, a psychotherapist, draws connections between a generation whose supportive style of parenting is so focused on preventing failures and unhappiness in their children’s lives that the children are left unable to cope with life’s perfectly normal frustrations. In their 20s and 30s, they find themselves anxious, depressed and unfulfilled.

Thankfully, the picture is not all bleak. With all the bad press given to helicopter parents, others have resolved to encourage their children to work out their own solutions to challenges they meet along the way.

My colleague, Monique Robinson-Wright, who is assistant dean for student affairs at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, says she sees positive and negative aspects of parental involvement at the college level.

“It’s true that overcompensation by parents can make it difficult to help students help themselves. But more often I see that students are in touch with their parents in a positive way,” she says. “Technology has made it more likely they will communicate with their parents about academic planning, finances, internships or graduate school.”

A former director of student life and diversity initiatives at Volunteer State Community College, Robinson-Wright also points out that many students at two-year colleges are the first generation in their families to attend college. As a result, their parents want and need more information to understand the mechanics of higher education.

Survey results

In fact, at the annual convention for student affairs professionals (NASPA) last month in Phoenix, a group of researchers presented survey results that run counter to stereotypes about helicopter parents.

Richard Mullendore and Sheri King of the University of Georgia, Alicia Peralta of NASPA, Patricia Rissmeyer of Emmanuel College and Angela Watson of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth shared findings that indicate students whose parents are involved in their higher education are on par with national norms in key areas of personal development. And they came out ahead of their peers in measurements of autonomy, career planning, cultural participation, mature interpersonal relationships and healthy lifestyles.

The researchers stressed that parental involvement does not necessarily mean doing things that students can do themselves. When parents intervened in some aspect of their student’s school life, it typically had to do with financial aid, paying school bills or a medical or safety issue.

Clearly, parents have a role to play throughout the entirety of their children’s educational careers. But as time goes on, that role needs to become more advisory.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.