What I Did Right and Wrong in My First Experience with a Helicopter Parent

Many years ago, I taught my first-ever university course. It resulted in my first contact with what is now widely termed a helicopter parent (yes, we had a few even back then, though nothing like today). I am writing now to reflect publicly on what I think I did right and wrong in dealing with this parent and hope other teachers will respond by sharing their own handling strategies.

I had been given good advice in my teacher prep training, and I put it into practice the very first day of the course by making the following announcement:

I recognize that students sometimes experience crises that make it hard for them to do well in their schoolwork. If you are facing a problem in your life that is impairing your performance in this class, I promise you I will do everything I can to accommodate your needs if you tell me at the time. On the other hand, once the course is over and I have turned in the grades to the administration, I will not makes changes based on you telling me then about some problem you had during the course that you think affected your performance. To put it more simply: If you are responsible, I will be responsive, but not otherwise.

After that first lecture, a young woman asked to talk to me privately, so we met in my office. With her lip trembling, she told me the horrible news that her parents had recently been murdered. She said “Sometimes I burst into tears and can’t stop sobbing, so if I have to run out of class suddenly when you are lecturing, that’s why”. I knew of the details of the murders from the media, but that couldn’t give me or anyone else more than a surface understanding of what she was going through. Of course I told her to do what she needed to do to take care of herself, expressed my sympathy for her loss and offered to arrange mental health counselling for her if she wanted it. I also said she could come to me anytime she needed extra help with the classwork or just wanted to talk.

Remarkably given the enormous loss she has sustained, she was an excellent, composed student. She never needed extra help and achieved a nearly perfect grade (on the merits – tests were blind-coded so I wasn’t being particularly easy on her out of sympathy).

Other than a young man who was in a car accident a month later and missed some classes as a result, no other students came to me with any challenges that I had to accommodate as an instructor. However, after the course was over and the grades had been turned in, I found a note in my mailbox from a student in the course. He wrote that he remembered that I had specifically asked people not to come to me after the course with problems that had affected them during the term. Nonetheless, he wanted me to know that his dad had been very ill during the course. Although “he didn’t want to guilt trip me” (yeah, right), he asked me to raise his grade because he would have done better if not for the family health crisis.

I was irritated at his irresponsibility and also his continuing passivity (i.e., leaving a manipulative note in my mailbox instead of talking to me). I telephoned him at the number in his note and repeated what I had told him and everyone else the first day of the course. I said that I was sorry about his dad, but that I was not going to raise his grade post hoc. End of discussion, I naively thought.

A few days later I answered my home phone on the weekend. It was the student’s mother, saying that her husband had been sick that term and her son therefore was under stress and couldn’t I therefore raise his grade to better reflect his talents? I told her that the Dean’s Office had told instructors not to change grades after the course ended, which was a weaselly thing to say. Mind you it was technically true, but at the same time it wasn’t the fundamental reason why I didn’t want to change her son’s grade.

A few days later she called me at home again. She had spent the intervening days calling people in the Dean’s Office and some tower of jello therein told her that an exception to the grade-change policy could be made if I, as the instructor, really wanted it to be.

My cover blown, I had to be more direct and state that — Dean’s Office or no — I didn’t think it was appropriate to raise her son’s grade. My resistance was based partly on fairness: If any one student got a raised grade based on a note in my mail box and an aggressive parent after the course, then every other student in the course should been allowed the same benefit. But I also objected based on my promise to be responsive to the students on the condition that they were responsible.

I repeated to the mother what I had said to the students the first day of class and emphasized that her son said he had heard it. She responded “It’s not my son’s style to address problems proactively”. I said that her son was entitled to his style but that he had to accept the consequences of it.

She did not relent, asserting that I had too high expectations of how well college students could cope. “They’re just kids after all”, she remonstrated. Fate had given me the opportunity to lower the boom, so I did. I told her that one of the students in the course had recently lost her parents to a murderer, but had managed nonetheless to respond to the expectations I had set on the first day of the course and to be an excellent student during the course as well. I added that I thought the mother was underestimating the abilities of college age ‘kids’.

The mother audibly gasped at the mention of the murders and backed down. I wished her and her family the best and rang off.

I was a piddling graduate student teaching his first course, so I think I did okay in that situation even though I could have done much better. I got the biggest thing right: Not being bullied into raising the young man’s grade. But what would I have done without the concrete, irrefutable example for this parent that a 20-year old can reasonably be expected to act more responsibly than a 10-year old? I might have ultimately been browbeaten into folding.

I did several things wrong. First, I didn’t in the first conversation say clearly that it wasn’t administrative barriers that were preventing me from changing the grade, but my sense of fairness to all the students who weren’t engaging in the same behavior as this student and his mother. Second, I didn’t communicate to the mother as strongly as I could have that college education isn’t just about learning content. It’s also about learning to be a responsible adult in the world and her son would take away the wrong lessons if his grade were raised. If I could have found a way to make that point without offending her, it might have helped her understand that she shouldn’t make another round of calls to some other poor instructor the next time her son got a bad grade.

Last but not least, I regret that I didn’t have the moxie to call up the Dean and chew him out for not backing me up. Deans and their staff members should not be cowering before helicopter parents and throwing hard decisions onto graduate students who have never taught a course before. The Dean of my school and his minions should have had my back, but instead they abandoned the field.

Comments

  1. A Professor says

    This instructor should never have spoken to the parent at all, which pretty much renders the rest of the piece moot. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is the federal law which shields every college official. The students are 18 and thus without express written permission designating the parent as an authorized agent for the student, it is illegal to speak with them about the student. It also provides an excellent opportunity to highlight for inquiring parent that their child is an adult who needs to speak for themselves. In 20+ years of teaching, I have never had a second conversation with a parent, or even a
    First conversation that lasted a full minute.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      The students are 18 and thus without express written permission designating the parent as an authorized agent for the student, it is illegal to speak with them about the student

      If you are correct, I should at this moment be grateful that I was not prosecuted in federal court for answering my home phone (perhaps I will be, now that I have written this post). But IIRC, FERPA doesn’t stop professors from talking to parents about students, if it did at they would never say “It has been a joy to have your son/daughter in class” for fear of going to prison. FERPA prevents the disclosure of educational records to parents, which was not done in this case. Your solution works when the parent doesn’t know the student’s grade and behavior and is demanding disclosure by a school, but is not effective in situations like this one when a student has already disclosed all that to a parent.

    • Warren Terra says

      I don’t know about anybody else’s graduate school experience, but when I was TA’ing I was never told anything about FERPA. In fact, I wasn’t told much of anything beyond the obvious.

      • prognostication says

        Grad students do get this training now, but often the professors don’t know the rules and instruct TAs to do things that are specifically forbidden by FERPA. It’s a great position to be in.

        I’m going to side with Keith here. “Personal observations”, which is what I think this falls under as long as specifics of grades are not discussed, are not covered by FERPA.

    • says

      FERPA protects documents, not information. There might or might not be university policies in place to protect information, but those policies are not mandated by FERPA.

      By contrast, my understanding is that HIPAA (medical privacy) does protect information, whether or not it is written down.

  2. DCA says

    No disagreements with your self-assessment.

    I think the “He’s just a kid” captures the essence of the problem, which is the parents’ reluctance to admit that their offspring is an adult, and that their job, as parents, is largely done. This may be related to sending so many people into higher education; in an earlier era, most 18-year-olds would have had a job, and thus clearly entered the world of adults. Not that I am trying to discourage people going to college, I just think this is a consequence that has to then be managed. There is also the effect on the student, sometimes for the worse, that the they remain in a world where they are surrounded by peers with a few older people around, instead of (as in a job) being one of a few young people surrounded by older ones.

  3. James Eaton says

    Thanks for posting this. The poster who said you could have refused to discuss the matter with the mother is technically right; we both know, however, how these conversations go, especially on a home phone. And no, there is no violation of FERPA here.

    I’m adjunct faculty and what I find inspiring here is the simple comment about what you should have done. It’s hard to have that courage in the moment but ultimately I agree with you. I’m actually going to make your comment at the beginning of the course a part of the beginning of my courses.

  4. politicalfootball says

    with what is now widely termed a helicopter parent (yes, we had a few even back then, though nothing like today)

    I wonder why this has changed. Is it partly a function of the higher stakes in higher education nowadays? I think maybe it is partly due to parents’ having fewer children, and thus being able to invest more time in them.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that while the parent discussed here was obnoxious and in error – and that like anything, ‘helicopter parenting’ can be overdone – the trend toward parents’ close involvement in their adult children’s lives is generally a good one.

    Even in this rather unpleasant case, I think it’s possible that the young person involved emerged with a better understanding of how the world works (thanks, of course, to your getting the big picture right, and refusing to change the grade). But frankly, even if you’d buckled, the student would have learned something about how the world works.

    First, I didn’t in the first conversation say clearly that it wasn’t administrative barriers that were preventing me from changing the grade, but my sense of fairness to all the students who weren’t engaging in the same behavior as this student and his mother. Second, I didn’t communicate to the mother as strongly as I could have that college education isn’t just about learning content. It’s also about learning to be a responsible adult in the world and her son would take away the wrong lessons if his grade were raised.

    You don’t say it explicitly, but I’m guessing you’d agree that a key consideration here has to be “just about learning content.” A grade ought to measure achievement, and while there might be extenuating circumstances for why the student didn’t learn the content, in the end, any accommodation must involve the student actually learning the material. (And thus, as you note, any accommodation has to be made before the course is complete.)

    • Katja says

      Is it partly a function of the higher stakes in higher education nowadays? I think maybe it is partly due to parents’ having fewer children, and thus being able to invest more time in them.

      I don’t think it’s that; helicopter parenting starts well before college and regardless of any future higher education context. I know that my mom got a lot of flak for letting my 15-year old self bike to school (that was back in 1991); mind you, just 1.5 miles through a totally safe area. Nevermind that I’d been doing it since the age of 10. And today, my school probably wouldn’t even have allowed it.

      I think it’s mostly just changing social norms. Remember the Lenore Skenazy story and the hateful responses she got for it?

      • dbc says

        I know that my mom got a lot of flak for letting my 15-year old self bike to school (that was back in 1991)

        I’ve read stories about this; but in what part(s) of the country does this actually happen? I grew up in suburban New England back in the ’70s and ’80s and everyone walked or biked to school unless they were far enough away to take the bus or old enough to drive. Being within easy walking distance of an elementary school was a selling point for a house and added to property value. I was back in town over the holidays and my mother told me with a little disgust that kindergarteners and first-graders must now be walked or driven to school – older kids can and do still walk or bike.

        The suburban New England town in a different state in which I now live doesn’t even have this restriction – though they don’t allow bicycling before third grade, and do require parental permission and a helmet. They even have official walk-to-school days and have spent money to improve sidewalk safety fairly recently: Safe Routes to School. It’s not like the streets and sidewalks in New England are all that wonderful for walking and biking in the winter, so I’d sort of of think that doing so would be relatively less common here – but apparently not?

        • Richard Hershberger says

          Strictly anecdata, but I have two daughters, aged four and six, and live in an old Maryland town that is very walkable. The older kid is in kindergarten. I drop her off in the morning, but the school really is a bit far for a six year old to walk to. On the other hand, when the hypothetical discussion arises of when she is older, or of walking to the public library less than a mile away, my wife is appalled at the idea. So is my mother-in-law. She argues that things are different today. I respond that they are indeed: violent crime is much lower, and I know about the sex offender down the street because I checked the registry (and the court records to determine that no, it wasn’t public urination or having a 17 year old girlfriend when he was 19: it turns out in his case to be just the sort of thing we want sex offender registries for). The argument is premature, but I expect it to come to a head in a few years. The idea that a ten year old can’t walk to the library alone on perfectly good sidewalks I find to be absurd, but lots of people seem to disagree.

      • Grumbles says

        Pure anecdata here.

        In the early/mid 80s, as a 10-15 year old, I was expected to do it myself. That involved an unreliable car, friends, bystanders, on occasion, and after my car crapped out in an unfortunate place, once, the cops.

        We were a poor family, so perhaps that is different. But high school was about 25 miles away, college, about 1300.

        I recall showing up in Middletown with a box and no idea where to go. A cab driver took pity on me, drove me to a frat house on campus for what remained in my pocket, where they took me in on a cold CT nigh, when i met the most courteous, friendly dudebro ever. And that is why I still don’t hate frats. After letting me warm up, he told me that I’d feel pressure to avoid him, and he was right – I ended up in the non-frat, heavily progressive crowd, and a right/left split did make it difficult to have friends on the other side. He lives on the other coast now, but we throw business to each other when it works, despite having very different lifestyles, and I’m privileged to be godfather to his first son.

        This story went a bit off topic, but I’ll continue it because it is on point.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      I have no systematic data on it, but I don’t think helicopter parenting is an American trend so much as it a middle class trend. if there is a class element, it could work synergistically with the declining family size factor that politicalfootball notes.

      • Katja says

        The rise of helicopter parenting is definitely not a US-only thing, but I think that there are unique cultural and economic pressures that mean that US helicopter parenting has its unique style (as opposed to, say, South Korean helicopter parenting or German helicopter parenting). With respect to college, there is a confluence of factors at work: Right now, many middle class families are really only one catastrophic event (unemployment, divorce, illness, disability, etc.) removed from poverty. College has traditionally been the key to prosperity and the middle class for Americans, but (1) this really isn’t a hard guarantee anymore and (2) college has become increasingly more expensive. This creates a lot of social and economic pressure for families.

        Living in a litigious society also has its downsides; nobody wants to take on a responsibility that may get them sued for millions of dollars without some insurance, so policies get put in place that minimize liability even at the expense of common sense (e.g., zero tolerance policies) and the buck doesn’t stop until it ends up in the laps of the parents.

        Finally, I’m looking at the 24-hour news cycle and its need for sensationalist stories and how it tends to play up fears; much of these fears relate to terrorism, but many also relate to our children, and we’re genetically hardwired to be protective of our children. However, humans also are really bad at assessing risk, so we tend to overdo this.

        • EB says

          Right. And the risks that come in the form of discernible events (not getting into a good college or getting a lucrative job) are seen more clearly than the risks that spread out over a life time (not having the ability to struggle, waiting for someone to bail you out, not being resilient).

          • Keith Humphreys says

            As I have said before, the strangest feature of all this is that the people with the least to worry about (i.e., those with more money) seem to be the most worried.

          • Katja says

            Keith, there are two explanations that I can think of. One is simply that people who have the most also have the most to lose.

            The other is that fears are only one explanation for helicopter parenting. For example, as I understand it, the primary proximate cause for helicopter parenting in Germany is that parents try to live vicariously through their children, substituting their children’s successes for lack of their own, whether perceived or real (exacerbated by the fact that German society still frowns on mothers working full time, which makes having a career and children at the same time difficult). While this may not be as much of a problem in America, I’m pretty sure that it still is pretty common, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the mother in your story had exactly this issue. It is also typically more of an upper middle class problem, because that’s where expectations of success are the strongest.

          • Keith Humphreys says

            Very interesting as ever Katja. I am familiar with the phenomenon you describe, for example a number of successful musicians/artists have had a parents whose own artistic ambitions were frustrated. But I also, in the Bay Area at least, see a lot of helicoptering by extraordinarily successful people.

          • Katja says

            Agreed, Keith, though I think that may then be a slightly different phenomenon and closer to tiger parenting.

            I should add that the issue of helicopter parenting has started to be of some relevance for me as I’m running into it at my older daughter’s new school (nothing big, but she’s a smart girl and does notice the obvious differences in approaches to parenting, even if she can’t fully analyze and characterize them at her age, so she has questions that I need to be able to answer).

    • Keith Humphreys says

      You don’t say it explicitly, but I’m guessing you’d agree that a key consideration here has to be “just about learning content.” A grade ought to measure achievement, and while there might be extenuating circumstances for why the student didn’t learn the content, in the end, any accommodation must involve the student actually learning the material. (And thus, as you note, any accommodation has to be made before the course is complete.)

      Thanks politicalfootball for making this important point. The request to me was of a different form than that of the kid who had a car accident, who wanted some extra time and meetings with me so that he could learn the material he missed when he was out. The request from the student and his mother was to give him a grade reflecting that he had learnt material that he had not and would not learn, on the assumption that if he had not had a family problem, he would have.

  5. Bostonian in Brooklyn says

    My kids are 14 years apart (not 20 but close) so I can speak with great authority on the matter. You must consider cell phones. I learned what kid #1 was up to when we got the credit card bills (“Oh, he took his dorm out for Chinese food – isn’t that nice.”) . Kid #2 buzzed a few times a day in order to use me as a pre-smartphone web interface. (“I’m at the corner of Hancock and Harvard, where is the nearest Ice Cream Parlor?”).

    A few other things: more kids have a diagnosed problem like ADHD or dyslexia. Clearly eventually they will have to deal with these problems but exactly when? It is easier to get a job that does not require much writing than it is to get a degree without passing the required humanities course. (Of course, those fit into problems that you know about before the final.)

    That said, are there stats to show parents hover more? Didn’t FDR’s mother move to be close to him in college?

  6. says

    Keith, I’m curious: Have you had any second thoughts about laying the “you know what happened to the other kid in this class?” story on the parent? I mean, I bet I’d've done the same thing, but I’m not sure I’d've been comfortable with it later. It puts (in my opinion) a disproportionate guilt trip on the parent and it exposes information (granted, somewhat public information) about that other student which arguably shouldn’t have been exposed in this manner.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      @John A Arkansawyer: It’s a fair question and I have thought about it. Not the confidentiality part because there was wall-to-wall media news coverage of the victims as well as the surviving family members, how old they were, what they did for a living, where they lived, how survivors they reacted to the news etc. But I have thought about whether it was fair to the mother to drop the bomb on her, so to speak. At the time, I felt strangely defensive of the victim, as if the mother was essentially trivializing people that age as irresponsible kids where I could see how amazing this young person was in her coping. But of course the mother didn’t know about the victim’s daughter when she referenced how puerile kids her son’s age were and how little could be expected of them, so perhaps it was unfair to the mother to give her such a devastating counter-example. On the other hand, maybe it was good for her if it helped her stop infantilizing her son.

  7. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    It’s pretty much an immutable law of life in any grownup environment: acting like a tower of jello is a good way to get squashed. Mine isn’t academia, but rather the corporate world. Weak managers often give decent performance appraisals to their reports-from-hell, fearing that they will be sued otherwise. So what happens? Five years later, the report-from-hell finally gets fired, for all the conduct that was suppressed by the Pollyanna manager. The report-from-hell sues, as the manager feared. The employer’s lawyer then has to explain the long string of decent performance appraisals to a jury. Not fun for the lawyer, and less fun for the manager.

  8. bjssp says

    It seems necessary to distinguish between being involved in the sense of making sure homework is always done and being involved to the extent you create excuses and grub for grades. The former is fine, up to a point. Hell, it’s even preferable in most cases. The latter is unacceptable and ridiculous in most cases, and I imagine that is what KH is referring to when he speaks of “helicopter parenting.”

  9. mc says

    the poor girl’s parents were murdered just before the class began .. I just don’t understand why she even attended that semester/quarter .. she needed time to grieve and cope w/ such a loss. if I were the teacher, I would’ve strongly urged her to take a much needed break and spend time w/ family and friends rather than at school (despite some people thinking school is a good distraction – it is not!). one missed quarter/semester is meaningless at this point…what’s most important is her mental and spiritual healing. this is what should’ve been the teacher’s hindsight reflection. as to the boy’s mother, what I don’t get is how a parent can change an adult student’s grade..the student is an adult, and he should only represent himself, not his mother. whatever university that allowed that sucks, and is probably some small private university that is desperate not to lose tuition fees.

    • J. Michael Neal says

      . . . despite some people thinking school is a good distraction – it is not!

      This is far too simplistic. For some people it is good therapy to be back at school among the familiar and dealing with issues quite separate from a tragedy. For other people it isn’t. You don’t have any idea about the circumstances or the personalities involved here so you are dressing idle speculation up as certainty.

      And one missed quarter can be a very big deal. For starters, depending upon what program she is in, a missed semester can turn into a missed year depending upon when courses are offered; if there is a two semester sequence that is a prerequisite for upper division classes in a small program, the first course might only be available in the fall. Even if it is just a semester, that can be a serious hardship. While you probably won’t have to pay tuition, you do still have to cover your living expenses so it effectively increases the cost of going to college by thousands of dollars while delaying entry into the workforce and thus forgoing thousands of dollars of income down the road. And, again, in some programs, entry into the workforce, such as through internships, is structured around an annual schedule and so one semester missed can turn into an extended delay.

      So the whole question is vastly more complicated than you allege.

      • Keith Humphreys says

        @mc: I think she had the right to make the decision for herself, and given her outstanding performance in what was a challenging course, I think she made the right decision.

  10. says

    Let me go a bit beyond the helicopter parent issue and pose the question of whether and when a professor should take account of the personal life of one of his or her students. I’ve actually been on both sides of this conundrum.

    In my first year at law school, my father died during final exams. Of course, I got a waiver that allowed me to take exams late, but, without a study group, my grades took a significant dip. I’m certain that one professor ave me a grade boost that, based on the final exam, I didn’t deserve.

    Later, as an adjunct at the same school, I noticed that one of my students was having a serious personal crisis. For any number of reasons, I didn’t feel comfortable getting directly personally involved, but I did try to direct the student to the school’s guidance services. Perhaps returning the favor extended to me years before, I tried to make certain that her grade was higher than her actual class work warranted. (Note: I taught the course with another adjunct who was not as generous as I was.)

    My only regret with respect to the later situation was that I was not forceful enough with my co-adjunct in pushing the final grade a bit higher.

    Was I right to take notice of my student’s personal issues? Did I act beyond my jurisdiction in reporting the situation to the administration? Alternatively, did I do enough? Was the change of grade warranted? To this day, I still cannot answer these questions to my own satisfaction.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      @Stuart Levine: My view is that a grade reflects whether the student has learned the material. I think a B should mean they did a good job learning it, not that OR they did a poor job but had a crisis and that’s why they didn’t. If people have crises and let me know when I can do something, I see my role as a teacher as giving the extra opportunities to learn the material but not to increase their grade as if they had learned it.

      I don’t know the personal situation you mention so I can’t comment, but in general, although we may not be required to try to help students in crisis I think we should try to, whether it’s directing them to resources that can help them or finding ways they can complete coursework in the context of the crisis.

      • EB says

        Let’s look at this tension between honest grades for work done, and generous grades given to recognize what the student might have learned in better circumstances. It is the rare student who does not face some sort of stressful or even tragic situation at some point in her/his time at university or college.

        I’ll contribute my own fairly minor ones: a bad case of bronchitis that lasted for weeks before and during finals, preventing me from sleeping and forcing me to study in the stairwell so as not to disturb the other students. And then the death of my beloved grandfather during a different set of finals. Think about it: college students tend to have elderly grandparents; they tend to get sick.

        It would not have occurred to me to ask for better grades (and my parents would not have even known how to intervene, thank God). Also, some of this tension comes from grade inflation. I didn’t mind a couple of B’s that might have been A’s, because almost no-one had a 4.0 average anyway. If most students have A averages, as they seem to do today, the stakes are higher if an exam is truly flubbed.

  11. NCG says

    I have no argument with the grade not being changed, but imo, this lesson about talking to people directly is more important than any actual grade. (I also think it can be a cultural issue but that’s another kettle.)

    The only thing I would suggest, in 20/20 hindsight, is that it would be good to point out to the student that he should have asked for help when he needed it — not just to follow your rules for the course, but also because in life, if you don’t squeak, you don’t get. Being shy, being ashamed … these things get you nowhere in life. The takeaway for him should have not been, “you’re a terrible person for not following my rule, and therefore being a weasel,” but rather, “wow, academia is made up of actual humans, and we can treat each other as such, and I can be a member of this community, even though grades should *never* be changed for these types of reasons.” (Which I don’t think they should. It’s unfair because you are rewarding the squeaker and not the quieter person.)

    Just the fact that you were sympathetic to the female student probably helped her feel better about the course and about her ability to persevere. (And while I wonder how things turned out for her long term, I do observe in life that sublimation actually works pretty well for a long time, in many cases. Anyway, that’s up to the person.)

    I do think all of us are still growing, and while principles are great, how we enforce them is every bit as important. Like you said, it’s not just what you learn in class.