Helicopter Parents: Bring Them Down to Earth

Mary “Pinky” McArthur was a helicopter parent long before the term was ever invented. In 1899, Pinky moved to New York when her son (General Douglas MacArthur) enrolled at West Point. Some say she even kept tabs on his daily activities with the aid of binoculars.

Hopefully your mom isn’t planning to move to campus with you, but there are many less extreme habits of helicopter parents that can interfere with your life. If you’ve spotted your parents hovering over your college search and worry about how the future will play out, here’s some advice.

Stop Fueling the Helicopter

It might be easy to let mom fill out the applications and have dad ask questions on the tour, but you’re only encouraging their bad habits. Next time mom or dad steps in to do something for you, remind them that they’ve taught you a lot over the years and now it’s time for you to put that knowledge into action by making your own choices.

If your parents are hard-core hoverers, now’s the time to set some ground rules. For example, tell them that you don’t want surprise visitors; instead, make plans in advance for them to come to campus on a specific weekend.

To get input from fellow students about how to deal with your parents, post a question over at College Confidential. You might even try the Parents Forum to get a parent’s perspective on your situation.

Diagnose Their Motives

When you’re about to lose your temper with your parents’ hovering, step back and remember that they have your best interests at heart. Look at it from their perspective…
Old habits die hard. It’s natural for mom and dad to have trouble letting go. Cut them some slack when it comes to the little stuff (everyone loves care packages, after all), but hold your ground on bigger issues (e.g., scheduling classes and choosing an internship).
They don’t want to fail. Your parents have helped you grow and learn for 18 years, give or take, and they may see the college admissions process as a final grade on their success as a parent. Is that a bit extreme? Yes. But it may be how they feel, even on a subconscious level.
Vicarious living at its finest. All parents want their children to have a better life than they did, but some push their children to make up for their own failures or missed opportunities. Remind them that your future is your own.
Money talks. With college costs soaring, your parents will want to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth. Tell them you’re grateful for their help, but that paying the bill doesn’t mean they get to make all the decisions.

Think of the Future

If you get cold feet about having a frank discussion with your hovering parents, think about the possibility of mom and dad going with you to a job interview or calling your boss to demand an explanation for why you didn’t get a raise this year. Sound scary? It really does happen! If you don’t ground that helicopter now, it may well follow you for the rest of your life.


This article was written by Sarah Engel

Sarah Engel is a staff editor for CollegeView.com. Sarah writes extensively on the topic of undergraduate studies and the college search process.


  1. Sarah D.

    My parents were the furthest from helicopter parents. My admissions process was scary all alone. I am now a Doctoral student with plans to accomplish and achieve my PhD in 2012. I am already a helicopter parent to my 2-year old and will remain one until the day I die! I want my son to do things right and not waste $20k the first year of college like I did!

  2. B G

    Wow, I hope my kids would never dream of saying something so disrespectful to me. We are paying the bills so we do have certain rights, and learning to live with that fact will help prepare a teen for the real world: your boss is in charge of your performance review so if she wants to meet with you every other week, you do it.

    By that same token, parents should have some input into choice of major and parents should definitely be kept apprised of grades in a timely fashion.

  3. Judith

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Sarah. I think families need to work together to decide what is best for their family. I believe parents can do too much for their children but I also think external sources such as this web site may exert too much influence over young people and lead them toward an ugly entitlement attitude. Then there is all the parent bashing going on in mass media. In many circles families are seen as a drag rather than a resource for our becoming who we want to be.

  4. Sunny

    I am so surprised to read this article. In my mind, my parents were not helicopter parents, however, I always shared my grades, discussed the choice of my subjects, future goals and every small thing of hostel life. I always got the best advice, encouragement and got success in every field. I lived with my parents even after my high school till I finished my grad as I could study from the same place where they were living. I could have stayed longer with them if I could have studied post grad from same place. It does not matter. Living with my parents during my undergrad did not give me any disadvantage in any sense or made me dependent in any way. One thing I know they are my best friends and I always cherished the moment that I shared with my parents.

  5. SpacemanEd

    “Here’s the deal, Junior: My involvement will be proportional to the laundry you bring home and the bills you ring up for which I am a co-signer.”

  6. Keovkusp

    Sunny, I think there’s a factor of much more involvement than that to be considered a helicopter parent. After researching this topic for several days I think I would put my parents in that category. I hardly thought it was a good idea to bring a lot of matters up with them. Even working and dating.
    Age 17, Never been to a concert because they think there’s too many drug dealers in all surrounding neighborhoods.
    Age 20, booked a trip across the country, my hotel gets cancelled. What did the parents do? They yell and carry on asking what am I gonna do now as if im just supposed to know. Way to be calm.
    Age 23, tried to move out, no support ‘you can stay! you can stay!’
    got robbed, moved to AZ and got laid off, don’t know what to do.
    Age 25, at home again but I learned some life skills.
    My point is I believe there’s different effects on different people. If you have a strong will, that’s great. Not everyone though. Character needs to be built, especially for most autistic people like me. I read the ‘they think they’re helping’ crap, seriously, an ego most certain to be stifled is one that doesn’t feel trusted, smart, or capable. But I love them dear and I don’t place ALL the blame on them. If I had a child with autism in the early 90s when no one knew what that was, I would be a bit manic as well.

  7. Keovkusp

    Come to think of it, could there possibly be a difference between a helicopter parent and an enabler?

  8. Susan

    Parents footing a monsterous college tuition loan (and this is THE PARENTS’ choice–no one forced the parents to finance 4 years of college for little Suzie so it’s not her fault) are justified in the choice of majors, area of study, etc).

    If Suzie wants to receive a 4-year degree in Underwater Basketweaving which costs the parents $999,999 (whatever) in tuition (cash OR loan), parents are not stepping on Suzie’s freedom or budding independence by telling Suzie NO. Pick a marketable, more practical major. Or pay for it yourself. Or don’t. Do whatever you want. If you ain’t financing it, you ain’t in charge

    They don’t have a right, on the other hand, to snoop into her sex life, drop in 24/7 at her dorm, etc.

    I have serious doubts about parents giving kids a full college ride. I’ve seen the result of many of my peers who were gifted with that full ride and they are boring people. One HATES her well-paid career and she’s dull. The other is a yuppie and I don’t care or see her anymore anyway. My favorite people came from a struggle. Adversity is exciting and chisels one’s character.

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