Helicopters, Lawn Mowers or Down-to-Earth Parents? What Works Best for Higher Education

Many faculty and staff working in higher education lament the increasing—some would say unending—involvement of the parents of our college-aged students. We denigrate such individuals as “helicopter” parents, and when the contact occurs in person as opposed to through the phone or email, we call them  “lawn mower” parents. There’s even a Wikipedia reference to both terms … and a recent book on the subject.

Most higher education administrators can attest to a situation where parents and student have shouted their way through a meeting in their frustration to get answers to why the student is not succeeding. Quite often, it doesn’t matter if the student had missed classes, failed to attend free workshops provided by student support services, chose not to meet with a professional tutor. Sometimes, parents appear to not want to consider the causes of a student’s considerable and rising stress level. That’s when the problem, apparently, seems ours alone: The college is failing their child.

The whole issue of parental involvement is made all the more complex by varying interpretations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which confound parents (and administrators). There is a distinction between what the law says and how the law is enforced on different campuses. Indeed, the law is less restriction than some campus enforcement. In addition, some students sign waivers. And, in some instances, waivers are not even needed. Bottom line, this is a complex set of issues.

Colleges across the nation are seeking to address these issues. There are initiatives designed to help first year students become more independent and more able to develop their own capacities to think through problems and reach solutions. Otherwise, we rightly fear that, as educators, we become enablers and, in so doing, fail to fulfill our obligation to graduate students who can navigate the larger world and be the leaders of tomorrow in their chosen fields.

Yet, some recent events have made me question whether our dismay at parental involvement is, at least in some situations, worth unpacking more fully. First, I read Jonathan Mahler’s moving piece in The New York Times, entitled “The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx,” which described the efforts of Ramon Gonzalez, the principal of M.S. 223 in the South Bronx, who has achieved considerable success—hard fought to be sure—by getting the parents of his students involved.

Second, I thought about the time, effort and money we are expending on our own campus to increase the involvement of the parents of our more than 60% first generation students and 40% Pell-eligible students.  We often lament that our vulnerable students cannot look to their families for assistance when the collegiate road inevitably turns bumpy as it does with most students at some point—a bad grade on an exam, roommate troubles, an impossible paper to write, an adverse faculty decision.

Note the irony: On the one hand, educators complain about helicopter parents and, on the other hand, our institutions overtly deploy resources to figure out how to engage more successfully the parents of our most vulnerable students.

Do we or don’t we want parents involved? My answer is yes and here’s why.

As frustrating as over-involvement is (and we need to develop quality efforts to ameliorate its worst effects), it is vastly preferable to the converse. The absence of parental involvement leads to increased high school dropout rates and failure of lower income students to progress to and through college. For me, it’s time to figure out how to take the best features of our involved parents and transport those attributes to the families of our most vulnerable students. That seems to be a better use of our time than getting frustrated over helicopters and lawn mowers.

Indeed, well-directed helicopters and lawn mowers have considerable upsides.

Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.


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