Monday, October 31, 2005

 

Ask the Administrator: Helicopter Parents

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

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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?

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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?

Comments:
Not a parent -- but a student. Never in a THOUSAND years would my parents have stepped in to an academic situation as an undergrad. It would have been weird for them and weird for me. At the same time, however, I definitely experienced that strange dichotomy -- being at a place where you're supposed to be turning in a responsible adult, but the responsible adults around you are, you know, 20, 30, 40 years older than you and they KNOW that even the most responsible freshman is going to founder. I'm not necessarily talking about the academic aspect, but more the "living on your own, for the first time, far away, in a culture that just screams HEDONISM." I once had a problem in a dorm room that needed maintenance, and was told I would have to wait 4 to 5 weeks for what was actually quite urgent. I called up Mom, who was quite happy to call the dorm manager and ask if anything could be done quicker. It got fixed that afternoon. And what struck me as even worse was the fact that my parents didn't pay my school bills, but they automatically got more attention on the phone. The customer was more "right" based on age than on actually *being* the customer.
 
I have had several encounters with helicopter parents over the years. My experiences as an administrator and advisor in higher ed will certainly inform when and how I interact with the administration at my child's college.

One of the things I think is important is to distinguish between the well-meaning (but perhaps misguided) and the meddling (and incredibly obnoxious) parents. It's also very different for a parent who's dropping off a freshman and one who's trying to intercede for a graduating senior. I found it much easier to deal with the parents of the first year student who were asking questions about "Just what can someone DO with a major in X" (legitimate question, if phrased badly) and the mother of a graduating senior who came in loaded for bear when her child failed a class right before graduation.

In defense of that student, s/he had come to see me (the advisor) first to confess that s/he'd failed a pass/fail class (the typical student miscalculation of exactly the minimum it takes to get a passing grade in a class) and to ask what his/her options were. I laid them out, told him/her that given the situation the most likely (and cost-effective) solution was to take a summer course at another university and that the graduation date would be August, not May, of the same year.

The student was fine with it and accepted responsibility for his/her situation, but the mother showed up in my office, FREAKED out, and wanted to make personal appeals to the faculty member, the College, etc. for ex post facto extra credit options, re-grading. The student was MORTIFIED.

(And went on to take my advice, graduated in August and went on to do a really cool summer internship at the same time that led to a job in the field of his/her choice.)
 
annie remarked: "The customer was more "right" based on age than on actually *being* the customer."

I'm not so sure I would chalk this situation up to "age discrimination" on the part of college authorities. It is very likely that annie's mother has acquired years of experience in learning how to advocate effectively for what is needed in a given situation, in this case dorm repairs.

For example, if the maintenance problem was something like a broken window lock that could allow an intruder into annie's room, the parent might express concern for the annie's security in very strong terms, emphasize the college's liability if anything should happen as a result of delays in repair, and insist on speaking to a supervisor if the person on the phone says he don't have the ability to deal with the problem in a timely manner, etc.

And, it's not just WHAT an experienced adult might say differently, but HOW she might say it.

Years of experience teaches one how to talk in a reasonable and confident, firm but diplomatic manner. (At least in theory....some parents who are perfectly capable of reasonable advocacy in business situations lose all rationality when dealing with situations involving their kids!)

Anyway, it sounds like annie's mom dealt with the problem effectively in that urgent situation, and perhaps annie can talk to her mom about strategies for advocating effectively for herself in the future.

I do agree with annie that urgent situations involving a student's health and safety are in a totally different category from academic situations involving grades.

As a parent and an educator, I've always tried to send my kids and my students the message that it's best to be philosophical about grades--they are inherently subjective and imperfect indicators. What ultimately matters is the true learning experience.

I was once in a colleague's office when he took a call from an angry parent (a stepfather, actually!) threatening to sue over a "C" grade. My colleague, who had actually been generous to the student in question, managed to calm the parent down. Because of FERPA, he could not discuss the student's particular situation, but he could have a general discussion about grades and their importance in the greater scheme of things. And ultimately the stepdad became philosophical and told him that the student's biological father had actually flunked out of college and started up a high-tech business which wound up making a fortune. They concluded the conversation on friendly terms. So it goes... Sometimes parents as well as students need someone to give them a little perspective.
 
I couldn't imagine my parents intervening in my relationship with the university I attended at 18 any more than I could imagine them calling up my boss and intervening in my work relationship. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly (gasp! at 36, no less!) I think these young people need to stand up for themselves and learn to craft and defend their own arguments.

P.S. Three stars for you for using a term as hip as "helicopter parents" - I've heard or read it no less than five times in three days.
 
Hey Dean Dad,
We have a FERPA equivalent up here in Canada. It's also a federal right to privacy, and profs, like docotrs, have a duty to bind to the protection of the privacy of the student. Just this year, however, I had to remind a mother no less than 3 times that I could not discuss her daughter's mental health with anyone except the daughter. The best response I got from that parent was "I totally respect that you don't want to be an enabler of her condition."
I feel sorry for the kid.
Anyway, boy child is about 4 years out from university. He;s already quite prepped not to expect hand-holding from us. He knows we respect his right to the tools to succeed, and his right to fail on his own if he doesn't use the tools properly.
My mum was an exec admin assistant in a univeristy; she would not have dreamt of interfering in my education. My father didn't give a crap, so long as I married well. I dealt with my own health issues, attendance, self-care etc. NO juice delivery to my bed when I had a cold. Yet we have parents here who complain that no one brings juice to the dorm rooms for their kids.
*HONESTLY*
It's clear that they don't know what they are paying for at all! I am going to start using the metaphor hat you do, but maybe as an audition metaphor.
 
A view from the other side, inside and out. My mother went to bat for me in my fourth of five years as an undergraduate. I was embroiled in a dispute with the communications department having tested out of their first year course by their written standard (passed the written test and scored 21 out of 30 on the oral) but it turned out that the profs and grad students marking the oral had assumed that it took at 22 to pass the oral.

My dispute dragged on for months (going through three different levels of department adjudication) with no resolution besides an offhand suggestion that it might be quicker to simply take the class (unfortunately, that was first mentioned a week after the drop/add deadline). In the last week of classes, with the department still dragging its feet, I succumbed to mono and was bedridden. Thank goodness for my mother who read my desperately penned note and went to bat for me. She bypassed the department in question, went to the dean and asked him to get me a final answer before the end of term. Happily, he agreed with me that the written standard should be applied and I was exempted from the course.

So, sometimes parents stepping in can help when it's needed. The department seemed to be dealing with me simply by not dealing with me and I learned a valuable lesson for the future -- if the department won't respond, see the dean!
 
I also love FERPA, but do understand a parent's frustration when he or she is footing some pretty hefty bills. I'm pretty much OK with the parents dealing with the administrators on the things they pay for -- tuition, books, housing, etc. And I'd be really happy if parents started complaining about the rising numbers of contigent faculty, because I believe that reliance on contingent faculty shortchanges the students -- not because of qualifications, but because contingent faculty may not be around to write letters, etc., and they are generally less invested in the insititution and in the individual students because they just can't be.

As for grades, etc.? Hands off is my motto. I did have a deal with the stepkid, though. If she wanted money to pay for classes, we would pay for them, in arrears, with proof that she'd actually passed the previous quarter's classes. But that was a deal with her, not the school.
 
MathSophie -- point well taken. However, surely there is *some* chance -- a good chance, in my opinion -- that a screaming mother gets more and prompter attention than a polite but young student? Your response makes several good points, but at the same time, it leaves no room for the possibility that what you call "better advocacy" is in fact the *perception* that an adult who is paying the bills presents a more urgent problem for the university than a student asking for help.
 
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.

i'm interested if you know any resources--books, articles--about this. it comes up repeatedly in my work at an educational nonprofit that helps low-income kids go to college. we (the white staffers) have a hard time understanding why our students (sometimes members of an ethnic minority group) are so reluctant to "go away to school," and any kind of info about this would help.
 
I have found myself in a rather ambiguous position: I am an academic administrator in a small to medium sized community college in North Carolina. On one hand, I've had to pull the FERPA card on a growing number of occasions and found that is pretty effectively trumps most helicopter parents' concerns.

On the other hand, my middle daughter has enrolled at my college and has struggled. Partly, her mom and I have had to advocate for her for several years because she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in middle school. Up to that point and even after, we as parents were constantly head to head to principals and counselors and teachers to assure our daughter had access to a good education and was safe when at school (she is a praticularly "brittle" diabetic who can crash in very few minutes and lapse into convulsions).

However, I took an oath to myself that I would not be a helicopter parent once she enrolled. There are tough times. I've found myself at the door of her A & P instructor and was able to bite my tongue instead of asking how my daughter is doing!

I think my point is this: the way many public schools are structured today, parents are having to take on the burden to really advocate for their students. And like me, I think many of these parents find it hard to "park the helicopter" at the college's gate. . . .

Let's continue to hold the line on FERPA, but let's have a little empathy, too.

PS: I am doing better and better each day in dis-assembling my helicopter!
 
Another perspective on FERPA: We told our daughter that us paying for tuition was contingent on her signing the FERPA waiver. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't believe that we should interfere in her academics. However, we can't even find out what her grades were (and what our money paid for) without that waiver, unless she voluntarily provides them to us. So, I think that in some ways the FERPA laws go too far. Especially when you consider that college students are treated as full adults when convenient (FERPA) and as children to be led when convenient (rules regarding mandatory dorm residency, mandatory meal plans, no cars at school, etc).
 
I can't say as I agree with FERPA. The amount of money demanded by colleges is no joke. If the kid's academic records aren't going to be made available to me ever, then you can just be wasting a ton of dough.

I'm not saying to micro manage each test either, but if the kid's grades at the end of the semester aren't available and the kid is screwing up how are you supposed to know?

Also, if the kid isn't going to complete their degree in 4 years and obligate the parent to thousands more in a 5th year of college doesn't the parent have the right to know that's coming?

Unfortunately some people will just flat out lie. So, if the student wants zero intervention then the answer is simple, take out a loan and pay the whole shot yourself.
 
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