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Darren Francis, Simon Fraser University, NACADA Emerging Leader
Nicholas Johnson, University of the Fraser Valley

DarrenFrancis.jpgNicholasJohnson.jpgParental involvement with millennial students has become a “hot topic” for post-secondary professionals at every level. As Mark Taylor (2006) notes in his article, Helicopters, Snowplows and Bulldozers: Managing Students Parents, “Mention parents to administrators, staff, or faculty at most colleges today, and you will hear a litany of complaints about monitoring, interference, and downright intrusion in their work with students. From admission and housing through course selection, to employment and student organization involvement, parents are inserting and asserting themselves like never before” (2006, Taylor).

As advisors, we have all had the experience of working with a student who has had at least one parent involved in their post-secondary decisions. From which school to attend, program to major in, courses to select, etce., parents are at the very least influencing students’ decisions, if not fully directing the educational future of their sons and daughters. As a result of their strong influence and the perceived “hovering” nature of their interactions with university professionals, the term “helicopter parent” was coined to reflect a parent’s “meddlesome” involvement within the advisor/advisee relationship. Other terms have since been introduced to describe these involved parents, including the Stealth Bomber, Bulldozer, Snow Plow, and others. However, upon reflection, is this perceived parental meddling an actual problem and does a parent negatively impact the advisor/advisee relationship? In the May 22, 2006 issue of Newsweek, Barbara Kantrowitz and Peg Tyre point out that the efforts of so-called “helicopter parents” have paid off as more students than ever before are entering post-secondary education. Combined with the fact that teen pregnancy rates, crime and drug abuse are all down (2006, Kantrowitz and Tyre), there is an indication that our perception of “helicopter parents” needs to change.

It is important to remember that students with their parents’ support are entering post-secondary education from a high school environment which not only encouraged additional parental involvement, but in some cases mandated it because research demonstrated that the more parental involvement, the more successful students became in high school. Subsequently, it is only natural that a parent would expect to continue his or her involvement as the son or daughter embarks on the journey of post-secondary education. Better understanding the K-12 school environment to which students and parents are conditioned can assist advisors in utilizing a strong student/parent relationship. For example, in our personal experiences seeing students, we have never had a student with strong parental support miss an appointment or fail to understand the significance of the information they were gathering. Obviously, students do need to be taught to make their own decisions and become independent, but it is clear that those skills have not been developed during the students’ time in the secondary school system, and as advisors and professional educators we must move beyond the pejorative stereotyping of using a term like “helicopter parent” and adapt our interactions to better prepare students and parents for life during and after university.

Validating the Student/Parent Relationship

When we were first trained as advisors, many of us were taught not to, under any circumstance, empower a parent’s right to be in an advising appointment with their son or daughter. We were told to discourage a parent from attending the advising appointment with their student, and if not possible to exclude the parent from the appointment, then to not respond to parents’ questions other than reiterating that the student was the individual with the appointment. At some institutions, parents were outright banned from attending student advising appointments. As one would expect, this only furthered parents’ resolve to be involved, as they felt their concerns were not being validated, and their exclusion generated much unnecessary concern. As we have gained more experience and better understood parents’ motivation, we have learned how to better manage student appointments and that it is better not only to acknowledge parents but to embrace their attendance, as it allows us to alleviate parental concerns and to work with both the student and parent to facilitate the transition of educational stewardship from the parent to the student.

Setting Boundaries

In his recent article “When Employees Bring Mom and Dad to Work,” Anthony Balderrama (2008) illuminates how the strong relationship between parents and children without the proper boundaries can become extremely invasive and be a detriment to the long-term development of the child (or student), having the exact opposite effect of the parent’s intent. Knowing this, it is our responsibility as advisors to better prepare not only students for success outside of the classroom, but to prepare parents with how they can best help their sons or daughters succeed. Developing a parent-only orientation is a great way to establish boundaries and set the “do’s and don’ts” of parental involvement. Showing up on the first day of classes is a good example of what a parent should not do and can be shared at a parent-only orientation in a humorous anecdotal story, which can be the impetus for providing parents with appropriate university etiquette, highlighting the differences between university and high school.

At the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, a relatively young institution (est. 1974), a parent-only orientation event has recently been introduced, with great response and success. 100% of respondents from the 2007 Parent Orientation indicated that the event was helpful, informative, and beneficial to them. One of the comments received which reflected the parents’ overall appreciation was, “So great to know staff will take the time to inform parents who are investing in their institution = TRUST!”

Conclusion

It is not sufficient to understand why parents are as involved as they have become recently, or to be sympathetic to that involvement, or to have tools to work with these seemingly meddlesome parties. Post-secondary professionals must accept this parental involvement and embrace it. A parent's motivation is always towards the child's best interests as perceived by the parent, however misguided the parent's actions may seem at times, and however frustrated this may make an advisor or other post-secondary professional. Additionally, many students want their parent(s) to be present and involved. In the post-secondary world, we identify, advocate for, and sing the praises of the myriad of supports provided for students: writing and math centers, tutors, advisors, counselors, disability services, financial aid offices, etc., but rarely if ever do we acknowledge the significance of parents as part of that support network. We need to recognize that parents are our partners and an integral component of student success. In many cases, parents are a pillar for student success.

It is well documented that the transition from high school to university can be dramatic for students, and without the proper support services students are at a greater risk of withdrawing because of the uncertainty which occurs during the transition to university. This transition can be just as dramatic for parents, especially when considering the environment of required involvement parents are accustomed to in the secondary education system. Subsequently, without implementing support services for parents designed to help them with their transition and preparing them with strategies for how to let go of children who are now becoming independent adults, how else are parents supposed to know how to support their sons and daughters? Thus, it is the responsibility of advisors and other university professionals to provide information through parent-only orientations, inquiries, handouts and Web pages designed specifically for parents, and inclusion in advising appointments to prepare parents on how best to support their sons and daughters in the post-secondary education environment. By eliminating pejorative terms to describe involved parents and educating parents on how best to support their children, we can help alleviate the adversarial relationship which often occurs between parents and university professionals, because expectations and boundaries will be set and all parties involved will be able to focus on what is truly important: the student’s academic success.

Darren Francis
Manager, Registrar & Information Services
Simon Fraser University
Darren_Francis@sfu.ca

Nicholas Johnson
Department Head, Educational Advising
Student Services
University of the Fraser Valley
Nicholas.Johnson@ufv.ca

References

Balderrama, Anthony (2008). When employees bring Mom and Dad to work. Retrieved September 29,2008 from MSN careers: http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-970-The-Workplace-When-Employees-Bring-Mom-and-Dad-to-Work/.

Kantrowitz, B. and Tyre, P. (2006). The fine art of letting go. Retrieved October 10, 2008 from Newsweek online articles.

Taylor, Mark (2006). Helicopters, snowplows, and bulldozers: Managing students’ parents. Retrieved October 23,2008 from taylorprograms.org:www.taylorprograms.org/images/BulletinNov200612-21a.pdf.

Cite this article using APA style as: Francis, D., & Johnson, N. (2008, December). Grounding the helicopters: Moving toward proactive partnering for student success. Academic Advising Today, 31(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]

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