A colleague and I ranted the other day about our students and how unprepared and seemingly underdeveloped they are as they enter our college classrooms (or as some might say, the kindergarten of adulthood). It’s not a new conversation; it’s one that college professors have constantly as they grade terribly written essays or attempt to answer an onslaught of emails from students with questions that are easily answered on the course syllabus.
The venting has seemingly become a national conversation though, and even a national crisis to some. The root of the issues that many professors face today as some of the first people who interact with children as they begin to “adult?” Helicopter parenting.
According to Kate Bayless at Parents.com, the term “helicopter parent” is believed to have first been used by educator and child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott in his Parents & Teenagers, published in 1969. According to Ginott, it was a name created “by teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter,” with the term becoming “popular enough to become a dictionary entry in 2011.”
The term is usually reserved for parents who have children who are old enough to handle their own affairs, but the parents take over anyway. I know these parents all too well. They fill up my campus voicemail and demand to speak to my department chair when their child isn’t doing as well as they’d like in my class. But beyond helicopter parents being annoying, they really are doing their children a disservice.
Parents want to help their children become their best selves, of course, so they learn to advocate for those children and manage their busy, socially and academically well- adjusted lives. But what happens when parents can no longer solve their children’s problems—make their phone calls, give them answers? Those children often fail, mostly because they don’t have the confidence to believe they can succeed to begin with. WashingtonPost.com contributor Amy Joyce reviewed what researchers had to say about helicopter parenting and adds this:
…those college students with “helicopter parents” had a hard time believing in their own ability to accomplish goals. They were more dependent on others, had poor coping strategies and didn’t have soft skills, like responsibility and conscientiousness throughout college…
Then there’s the ongoing conversation many college administrators and educators are having about a student body with increased mental health issues, and questions about whether over-parenting is linked to various mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. Author and former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims argues that while studies don’t necessarily report that depression among college students is a result of helicopter parenting, there are certainly correlations to consider. She writes:
A 2013 study of 297 college students reported in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that college students with helicopter parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction in life and attributed this diminishment in well-being to a violation of the students’ “basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.”
But what about Black parents and Black children? Is helicopter parenting a thing for us, an issue in our community? I teach at a state-funded, urban HBCU where a majority of the students enrolled must receive some type of financial aid to cover tuition. They are not Ivy League Whites, or even of the Black bourgeois Morehouse/Spelman HBCU variety. Yet I regularly notice that students are ill prepared for adult life and essentially lost as they attempt to navigate college life without their parents.
As the mother of a Black girl—and in the wake of incidents like the brutalization of a Black female student at Spring Valley High and even the savage murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee in Chicago—I wonder if it’s possible to not hover over Black children. Black folk are parenting hysterically. We are helicoptering. We are watching. We are nervous every time our child is out of our arms and the phone rings.
I am at my daughter’s school, regularly, checking in. Her teacher and I exchange text messages about her progress and her behavior. I want to know, as often as I can, that she is safe—mentally, physically and emotionally. I know I’m not alone.
Yet as I research the effects of helicopter parenting, I wonder if my careful watch over my daughter will cause her harm in the future. And as I contemplate my own parenting, I consider my mother’s, and my grandmother’s even. My parents raised three children in the 1980s, when crack cocaine hit Black communities hard and drug- and gang-related violence was a striking and dark normality.
But my mother didn’t hover. She raised her children to be independent and take care of themselves. She succeeded. Much in the same way, my grandparents raised 11 children on one side and six on the other, in the backwoods of the Jim Crow south before there was any semblance of a Civil Rights Act or any promise of safety for Black children. My grandparents also did not hover.
I’m grateful to know how to advocate for my child, to keep her as safe as I can, to nurture her and protect her in ways my parents may not have had the privilege to do, but I am determined to find balance. My goal? To hold her even as I am releasing her out into the world.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.