Monday, October 31, 2005

Ask the Administrator: Helicopter Parents

One of my favorite fellow bloggers sent in a good one:

Do you think it is acceptable at any point for parents to step in during a kid's college career?

I'm not talking about "the loan check hasn't cleared and I just lost my job, please don't kick my kid out of school," but more along the lines of "I don't think my kid should have got a C- in Spanish, what are you going to do about it?"

I'm very picky about this issue. I think the kid needs to learn responsibility, so the kid needs to deal with the issues. Parents should not be driving up from West Nowhere to register the kid's car or to help the kid drop a course. I don't even like it when I'm working at a college recruitment or orientation event and the parent asks all the questions. "We're interested in philosophy." Who's WE? I also think college parents' associations are a terrible idea. The kids are the ones who have to eat the food, take the classes, live in the dorms. If they don't like it, they should act on it.

The other side of this argument is that as long as the parents are paying the tuition bill, they should have as much say in where their money goes as they like. I see the point in this argument, but I don't know how I feel about it.

What are your thoughts on the issue?

I’d have to make a distinction between ‘macro’ issues, like cost (and please use actual cost, not tuition!) and whether to go to college at all, and ‘micro’ issues, like grading. On the macro issues, parental involvement is a fact of life, and it can be either positive or negative. I’ve learned over the years that different ethnic groups handle college decisions differently; in some recent immigrant cultures, you don’t ‘go away’ to college; the family sends you to college, contingent on it making sense for the family. If the family needs you to drop out, you drop out. In my family, that would be unthinkable, but it’s a defensible cultural choice.

On the micro issues, though, I strongly believe that professors should be allowed to do their jobs, without having to endure undue parental carping. In other words, once they commit to send Johnny to college, dealing with college is Johnny’s problem.

I got a doctorate in an academic discipline after years of hard work and sacrifice. I have taught at multiple institutions, both public and private. I’ve been published in my field, and have received an award at my discipline’s national conference. All of this is to say that I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes a ‘C,’ as opposed to a ‘B,’ in the intro to my discipline. I take my work seriously, and would ask only to be allowed to do it. (And I take it as a point of decanal pride that I have never, not once, not ever, changed a professor’s grade.)

The metaphor I’ve used with both parents and students over the years has been batting. Your tuition guarantees you an at-bat; if you strike out, that’s your problem. If that’s too male or American, any sort of ‘audition’ metaphor should work.

(Sometimes they get indignant and start yelling “I pay your salary!” The best response I’ve heard to that, which I’ve taken to using, is “that’s you? I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that…”)

Honestly, I’ve grown to love FERPA. For my Canadian readers (what’s up, eh?), FERPA is an American privacy law that forbids a teacher or academic administrator from discussing a student’s grades with anyone except the student, assuming the student is at least 18. That includes parents. Technically, a student can sign a FERPA waiver (which we keep in the dean of students’ office), but very few do. So when the parents come in all upset, I cut them off with “I can’t continue this conversation without a signed FERPA waiver from the student on file at the Dean of Students’ office. So sorry. Federal law, you know.” It’s very rare that they ever return.

(Exception: truly egregious misconduct, like stalking or assault. I've had to deal with those twice, and they're no fun at all.)

In my experience, the few times I’ve actually had people follow through with FERPA waivers, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that the real issue was the student either not showing up for class at all, or not bothering to do any of the work. I’ve seen parents turn on their kids, in my office. It’s not pretty, but it happens.

Helicopter parents (so-called because they’re always hovering) make it tough for the kid to learn to deal, which is, in some ways, one of the most important lessons we teach. I crashed and burned when I took Russian in college; slogging through that hellish nightmare was a growth experience for me, albeit a painful one. Had Mom simply placed a call and made it all go away in the first month, I don’t know that I would have developed quite as thick a skin.

I say this was great confidence, since The Boy is four. If he were 19, I might have a more nuanced view. Any thoughts from the parents of college students out there?