Helicopter Parents, Extracurriculars, and Those Darn Kids

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What's the real deal with helicopter parents? (Image courtesy The Telegraph, UK)
Now, I may be putting my position as a conservative blogger on the line by saying this, but I read the New York Times quite regularly. And in the past few months, I’ve begun to notice that the paper has somewhat of an obsession with college students- particularly, [why we’re studying less](http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/8/22/why-are-college-students-studying-less) than our predecessors, and why our [parents](http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/business/yourmoney/11wcol.html) [can’t](http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/in-defense-of-helicopter-parents/) [seem](http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/unhappy-helicopter-parents/) to [let go](http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/23/education/23college.html).

Today’s “Room for Debate” forum- one of my favorite NYTimes features- was, in line with this trend, devoted to discussing how and why college freshmen have changed in the past few decades. And, predictably, the contributors focused on helicopter parenting and students who study too little. What should we, as current university students, think about these issues? And how- if at all- does any of it apply specifically to Stanford? This conversation, of course, is much too big for one blog post- especially, I might add, one blog post from a blogger with an immunology problem set due tomorrow- so I’ll just make a couple of points that struck me as particularly important, then turn the discussion over to you, dear readers.

First of all, I’ve always had an issue with the studies (extensively cited and discussed in the first article linked to this post) that show college students studying so much less these days. I’ll start by making it clear that I can only really engage this issue from a Stanford-centric perspective- I just don’t know how things go on other campuses (except Cal, where the godless communist hippies clearly spend all of their time in drum circles). My objections to the idea that Stanford students don’t do enough schoolwork aside, I have an issue with the studies’ exclusion of extracurricular activities. While part-time and full-time work hours are addressed in the study, I didn’t see a single mention of clubs, performance groups, athletics, or other organizations. The commentators on NYTimes and elsewhere all seem to spend most of their time insinuating that any time “those darn kids” spend not studying or working is wasted. I must disagree. Speaking from personal experience, my time in extracurricular activities at Stanford has been just as educational (sometimes even  more so) than my time in class. I’ve gained widely applicable practical abilities (financial management, scheduling, meeting planning, fund-raising, etc.), specialized knowledge (how to arrange a song or take a medical history), and enhanced interpersonal skills (how to soothe tempers, motivate participation, and negotiate with superiors and equals). The NYTimes contributors- and many other “grown-up” opinion leaders- seem to ignore the vast educational value of this particular sector of student life.

Second, the whole parents thing. I’d like to start by acknowledging that many students here don’t have the privilege of supportive, involved, or even living parents; those of us who do have this privilege ought to remember that, and count our blessings. That said, I feel quite strongly that the rush to condemn helicopter parenting has, in many ways, led many commentators to underestimate the amount of parental involvement that is appropriate in a college student’s life. Yes, our parents shouldn’t be trying to run every aspect of our lives, solving our grade problems for us, or involving themselves so intimately in the details of day-to-day life that we never develop practical coping skills. But should parents simply abandon their children after dropping them off at college? I don’t think so. I talk to my parents at least once or twice a week; I like to update them on my life and get the news from back home. And honestly, they deserve* at least *a phone call every now and then- I love them, and they *did *undertake the thankless task of raising a child who, at one point in his life, refused to eat spaghetti with sauce on it. I’m also perfectly comfortable calling my father for quick advice about the car or my tax forms, or asking my mother, an English teacher by trade, to look over an application essay now and then. The mistaken idea that we know everything is *much *more dangerous to our personal development than an occasional request for parental help.

And let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: most of us are still living, to some degree, on our parents’ dime. And as much as we like to think of ourselves as fiercely self-sufficient adults, we’re not really entitled to claim the privileges and prerogatives of full independence until we can accept the responsibility of supporting ourselves financially. As much as we all hate to admit it, parents have a right to exert some degree of influence on decisions about how their money is being spent. So if, to pull an example out of thin air, your parents don’t like the fact that you’re living in a co-ed dorm room, they have every right to pull their funding for your education. (To her credit, the student mentioned in the article was willing to accept her parents’ decision to stop paying her tuition, and took financial responsibility for herself after the decision was made.)

With all of this said, however, I generally agree with what’s been said by the NYTimes commentators and others about excessive helicopter parenting: it really does damage students’ ability to develop into fully-functioning adults. We have to make our own mistakes in order to develop basic survival skills, be they emotional, financial, or car-related. The key here is to make sure that asking your parents for help doesn’t become too much of a crutch. I, for example, am careful to remember and store away any advice I get from my father, so I don’t have to run back to him again and again over the same issues. Likewise, it’s wonderfully fine and natural that we all seek emotional consolation and support from our families. I, for one, intend to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to develop personal coping skills and a network of peers who can lend us help and support. Do I see helicopter parenting at Stanford? Not to any excessive degree. But I do see a certain lack of practical survival skills (at this point, for example, we really ought to be doing our own taxes) that may be, at least in part, attributable to parental over-involvement and student over-dependence.

So, the message: keep in touch with your parents, respect their rights, and don’t be afraid to go to them for advice or help. But keep in mind your responsibility to learn how to live on your own. And keep it up with those extracurriculars! The reputation of college students around the world- or at least in the pages of the New York Times-  is depending on us.

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