It’s hard to feel sympathy for helicopter parents. Since their emergence, the media have criticized them, popular novels have caricatured them, and trade publications have offered advice on how to cope with them. They are blamed for creating a culture of coddling, a culture that has also produced speech codes and bias response teams. Amidst this din, some crucial questions have been neglected. Is everyone becoming a helicopter parent? What are helicopter parents actually doing? Most importantly, should we see helicopter parents as over-controlling neurotics or rational actors who trying to cope with new challenges? These questions matter for heterodox academics because their demands can be misinterpreted as attempts to protect their children from all types of discomfort, when their true motives are of a different nature.
Some answers can be found in sociologist Laura T. Hamilton‘s Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success. In this new book, Hamilton extends an ethnographic study of college women whose initial results were published in Paying for the Party, co-authored with Elizabeth Armstrong. Whereas the earlier book covers only the college years, Parenting to a Degree documents both the college years and later outcomes, and focuses on parents, thus allowing the reader to connect different types of parenting with success or failure after graduation.
Armstrong’s qualitative study is based on 59 interviews with mothers and fathers of women undergraduates at a respected but non-elite Midwestern university. These interviews represent the experience of 41 households from various social classes. All interviewees had daughters who started college in 2004, and these daughters lived on the same dormitory floor. This floor also housed Armstrong and Hamilton for a year, an arrangement that enabled their ethnographic study. Parental interviews were conducted four years after the start of college, around graduation. The students were also interviewed, but this book primarily draws from parents’ responses and evaluations.
Hamilton sets up her study against the background of significant changes in the kinds of students who opt for a four-year degree, and the financial resources they can draw upon. After WWII, the state rapidly changed its educational policies to extend university education to those formerly excluded on the basis of race, class, gender, and religion. Federal and state support also expanded higher education, and young adulthood became a distinct life stage. Yet state involvement reversed course after 1960—the government cut financial aid in the form of grants, and extended loans instead. Simultaneously, administrative growth made universities more expensive, but the government did not cover this expense, instead becoming more reliant on parents who pay full tuition. Parents were assimilated into the university apparatus, engaging in university promotion, and helping students find internships and jobs. Meanwhile, the number of desirable jobs, with reasonable autonomy and satisfactory benefits, did not grow in proportion to the number of graduates, making economic competitiveness more salient to students and parents.
Against this background of economic precariousness and high college tuition, the involvement of parents, Armstrong argues, can be viewed as a sensible response. How parents view college shaped how deeply they involve themselves, and Armstrong classifies parents has having one of these five visions of college:
(1) The career-building experience: “College gives you marketable skills and knowledge.” Most households with this vision were in the upper class or upper middle class.
(2) The social experience: “College is a place for our children to have fun, the same kind of fun we had, with Greek life and partying at the center of the experience.” Some parents with this vision hoped the party scene would be a conduit to a rich husband, and some understood that building social networks can be pragmatic for one’s career, but all considered social life more important than academic life.
(3) The mobility experience: “College enables our children to rise in social class, surpassing their parents’ class.” Parents whose own careers have been limited due to the lack of a college degree tend to emphasize mobility. These are primarily middle-class and lower middle-class parents.
(4) The adult experience: “College is a transition to a mature phase of life, where you are no longer dependent on us.
(5) The hybridized experience: This involved some combination of the above.
Parents who envisioned a career-building experience or social experience were deeply concerned that their daughters might fail, given the competitiveness of both arenas, and generally opted for a helicopter strategy, but other parents were less involved. Pairing visions with strategies, Armstrong assigned the parents in her sample to the five categories below. Two families did not fit this typology, having career-building or social visions, but without corresponding involvement, and these two outliers were excluded.
Here are descriptions of the five types:
- Pink helicopters: These parents, primarily mothers, were concerned with the social experience. They prioritized success in the sorority hierarchy and dating scene above academic achievement. They took care of daily chores, including laundry; they helped to decorate rooms; social emergencies, like not having a formal dress, drew their immediate attention. Often, they paid little attention to academic progress, and one couple did not even know their daughter’s major until graduation day. Pink helicopters gave their daughters money generously, often without accountability.
- Professional helicopters: These parents, who were concerned with career building, ensured their daughters were high academic achievers. They spent time researching the most profitable majors, and the most effective way to prepare for a career in a prestigious sector. For example, one set of parents pored over dental (graduate) school applications prior to her enrollment in an undergraduate institution to find out what those dental schools expected of an applicant. Professional helicopters frequently asked their daughters about academic progress, and encouraged a modest degree of extra-curricular involvement. They tied their financial support to academic accountability, and discouraged their daughters from partying and spouse hunting.
- Paramedics: These parents intervened when emergencies arose, or when their children asked for help. Emphasizing autonomy, they expected the college experience to involve learning through trial and error, and therefore sought to avoid a helicopter strategy. They also expected some financial autonomy, so they didn’t consider it their duty to cover all of their daughters’ expenses. In addition, they enforced accountability, with their financial support contingent on academic achievement.
- Supportive Bystanders: Bystanders often had little knowledge about college life and academic decision making, so they provided inadequate advice on appropriate majors. This resulted in frequent changes of major, and an unclear career trajectory. Supportive bystanders, who provided some financial support, were unhappy with the party scene, which was not only academically distracting, but also an unintended expense. They were also disappointed that the college didn’t provide more financial support.
- Total Bystanders: Total bystanders not only expected financial support from the college, they also declined to provide any financial support to their daughters themselves. They expected their daughters to find part-time or full-time jobs, potentially consuming over 40 hours per week, to cover the daily cost of living. They also took out student loans to cover their daughters’ tuition and fees. Like supportive bystanders, they did not know enough about college to provide much useful academic advice, but hoped that college would provide social mobility.
These five strategies were tied to disparate outcomes. In the table below, Armstrong summarizes the outcomes for each category. It is hard to draw a causal connection between parenting styles and outcomes, because in many cases, both the parenting style and the outcome resulted from class privileges. For example, professional helicopters were able to provide useful advice because of their own class background, but they were also able to leverage business connections to find internships and jobs due to their network of upper-class friends. However, professional helicopters could have opted for a pink helicopter strategy, and some helicopters could have also downgraded to a paramedic strategy. Thus, some contrasts are meaningful.
The daughters of both professional helicopters and paramedics did well, with a slightly higher GPA among daughters of paramedics, but better post-college employment outcomes among daughters of professional helicopters. The daughters of pink helicopters did quite poorly. Although they had better post-college employment outcomes than daughters of bystanders, their average GPA was a 3.0, and parental satisfaction was low. Parental satisfaction was also low for bystanders, and job outcomes were worse in this category.
The contrasting outcomes could be interpreted through a number of lenses, and Hamilton takes us through such interpretations in her final chapter, paying considerable attention to the gendered nature of parenting. For academics and others concerned with political indoctrination and coddling, it is less important to consider every perspective than to note three things.
First, Armstrong found little evidence that progressive parents demanded political censorship from the campus. This could be an artifact of the small sample, or the fact that the study was not conducted at a politically charged school like Oberlin or Brown. However, Armstrong sensed a political alignment between the cosmopolitan values of middle-class parents, and the faculty at Midwest U. One conservative Christian father, categorized as a bystander, complained that Midwest U embraced gays and lesbians, and taught students about Darwinism. His son, formerly in college, would disagree with professors’ statements about evolution, which led to considerable controversy. In Armstrong’s words, “For those from socially conservative in-state towns [like this father] the school seemed foreign and hostile.” I believe, and I expect most heterodox professors would agree, that colleges should welcome gays and lesbians, and that they have an obligation to teach students about evolution, so this father’s concerns do not seem to me like valid critiques of the university. If this case indicates anything, it is that social conservatives have different goals from advocates of political heterodoxy. Indeed, social conservatives may be comfortable sending their children to universities like Liberty University or Oral Roberts University, which have their own form of viewpoint policing.
Second, many college students are far from coddled. Rather, college students from disadvantaged backgrounds experience a mismatch between what they need and what the college provides, both in the financial and academic domains. As a result, they are saddled with student loans that their parents opted to open, and their tortuous path to graduation is marked by indecisiveness about majors and careers. If these students are angry, it is not because they expect to be sheltered from content, but because they must carry a burden that their better informed peers do not. They must figure out how the “system” works on their own, rather than get advice and career connections from their parents and their parental network. It is likely that many first-generation students who are African-American or Hispanic mistakenly identify these burdens as tied to race rather than class.
Finally, parents who opt to be helicopters may not see a return on investment in comparison to those who opt to be paramedics. Paramedics provide help when it is immediately warranted, and when the lack of help could make a critical difference. However, they don’t swoop in at every challenging situation. Their daughters fare well academically and reach adulthood with a sense of self-sufficiency. However, daughters of professional helicopters also did well. Given this similarity, perhaps it is unwise to view helicopter parenting as morally blameworthy. If all you care about, as a parent, is your child’s professional success, then helicoptering may be effective, although it is a much less efficient use of your time and money, compared to the paramedic style, which gives kids more opportunities to learn independence.