April 16th, 2009

How to Handle Helicopter Parents in College


When faculty members receive phone calls from parents about their children’s academic work, the response is often, “Our contract is with the students, not the parents,” says Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota.

Faculty need to keep in mind, however, that today’s parents are different than in previous generations. They were, in general, very deeply involved with their children’s K-12 educations, Savage says. They might have been so involved, in fact, that it wouldn’t occur to them that college instructors don’t welcome the same level of input.

“The parents think it’s perfectly normal to ask [a college] instructor how he or she has graded a test or if their student can get more assistance,” she says.

Meanwhile, many of today’s college students (the millennial generation) think it’s perfectly normal to let their parents fight their battles. “They are not like Baby Boomers or Gen-Xers,” Savage says. “They trust their parents and consider them their top advisers.

“The really surprising thing is that a lot of the students don’t argue [when their parents step in]. I’m meeting more students who are perfectly comfortable letting their parents do the work.”

Faculty members can turn such situations into opportunities to coach parents on how to guide their children appropriately while maintaining the integrity of the student-instructor relationship.

Savage recommends encouraging faculty members to:

Expect the call. “I think surprise is behind some of the hostility,” Savage says.

Tell the parent how the student can resolve the concern on his or her own. For example, the parent could encourage the student to make an appointment with the instructor or visit the campus tutoring center.

Emphasize that federal law — not instructor practice or campus policy — prevents faculty from revealing grades to anyone but the students.

Faculty members might also explain when and how grades become available so the parent knows when to ask the student for the information.

“That puts the entire discussion back where it belongs — between the parent and the student,” Savage says.

Excerpted from Coach Faculty on Handling Parents, Academic Leader, March 2005.