Do 'Helicopter Moms' Do More Harm Than Good?
'Hovering Mothering' Has Become Common on College Campuses
Oct. 21, 2005
Robyn Lewis is an extraordinarily devoted parent. As a single mom, she home schooled her sons, Ethan and Brendan, and her life has revolved around caring for them. Even though Ethan, 21, and Brendan, 18, are now attending college away from home, and she's taken a full-time job, that doesn't mean Lewis is losing interest -- or hour-by-hour involvement -- in her boys' lives.
When she's not on her cell phone with one of the boys, she's organizing their lives. She spends an hour drafting to-do e-mails for her sons, checking their grades, their bank account balances and even using their personal passwords to check their student e-mail.
Lewis works tirelessly to keep everything in her sons' lives in order -- from doing their laundry to organizing their schedules to proofreading their papers.
And Brendan and Ethan both say they're grateful for their mom's efforts on their behalf. "She wants to make sure that I do it well, and it, and it's all because, you know, she cares," said Ethan, who's studying at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Brendan, a freshman at Arizona State University, also appreciates his mom's help. "It's nice to have someone else who kind of serves as ... a secretary mom."
And the secretary characterization doesn't bother Lewis. "I think that's great. It means that I'm very organized. A secretary helps to keep the boss focused and organized, right? We don't know how to balance much of our lives yet when we're 18," she said.
Can Parents Be Too Involved?
No one could deny Lewis loves her sons and wants them to succeed. But not everyone thinks that she's helping them.
"I can understand why a parent would think, 'I'm just doing what I think is right for my son or daughter.' The problem is, they're doing exactly what's wrong for their son or daughter," said Helen Johnson, author of the book, "Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money."
Johnson is a consultant on parental relations for some of America's top universities, and she says parents like Lewis are far too involved in their children's lives.
"In taking over, they are sending a profound message: You are not capable of handling your life," she explained.
Johnson is more than familiar with the term now in vogue to describe someone like Robyn Lewis: a Helicopter Mom.
"A helicopter mom is a mom who hovers over every state in her child's development, from basically in utero, through the college years and beyond," she said.
Administrators say helicopter moms -- and dads -- have become a campus phenomenon.
Nationwide, there's a 12,000-strong advocacy group called College Parents of America -- emblematic of parental eagerness to get their money's worth in an era of skyrocketing tuition costs.
But there are other reasons why some parents and their college kids are staying so close: There's been a change in the way students once prized their on-campus freedom from home, and perhaps above all, technology means parents can still hover from a long way away.
"We certainly have parents calling about everything. Everything from 'who will be doing the laundry for my son or daughter to if they have to miss a few weeks of class,' [to] 'can I come in and sit in on the class and take notes for them,'" said Annie Stevens, assistant vice president for student and campus life at the University of Vermont.
At the University of Vermont, parents attend seminars aimed at limiting their involvement in their children's lives. They're sent home with refrigerator magnets, with instructions that reinforce the university's hands-off philosophy.
"One of things we want to teach the students and to have students learn is to try and help solve issues and problem on their own," said a resident adviser at the school.
Like Ethan and Brendan Lewis, Heather Fagan, a student at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, enjoys the benefits of "helicopter parenting." Every morning, she gets a wake-up call -- or two or three -- to help her get out of bed.
"They wake me up every morning, they're my alarm clock," she said.
Learning to Let Go
Johnson says this is worrying trend. "It's horrifying to me to hear the story that a parent is calling a child three or four times in the morning to wake them up in college. ... Are they planning to do that for the rest of her life?"
But Gail Fagan, Heather's mom, said she'll do it as long as she's needed. And that's a sentiment Lewis would agree with. She'll do as much as she can for as long as she can. She currently drives two hours to Ethan's dorm to clean it up, do his dishes and pick up his laundry twice a month.
Eric Chester, president of the training and consulting company Generation Why Inc., sees this high level of parental involvement as a high-level problem for employers, who face a new generation of workers.
"If you've always micromanaged their life, then that kid is going to be dysfunctional in the workplace, regardless of what their skill set is," he said.
It is a reality that Lewis knows she needs to face. She is proud of the artistic and intelligent children she's raised, but know there'll come at time when she'll have to let go.
"She's like the most selfless person on the face of the planet. I mean, she will give and give and give and give and give, and when she's got nothing left to give she'll keep giving. She has succeeded in every aspect of giving my brother and I everything a kid can ask for," Ethan said.
But for Lewis, letting go can be the hardest thing of all. The lists and the calls don't just help her sons, they help her stay close to them. "These habits are very hard to break and I'm still doing them. I'm trying to wean them off more and more so that they can become more self-reliant," she said.
But as much as she wants the boys to be self-reliant, she wants to keep making the to-do lists, calling them three times a day, and reading their school papers.
"I want them to be able to become their own person, as long as we stay close and I don't want to feel that all of this micro-managing mothering has crippled them in any way to not be able to relate to other people," she said.
That was last year. This semester, Brendan has continued at Arizona State, but Ethan is transferring to the University of Hawaii.
And Lewis knows an even greater separation is yet to come when the boys settle down and start families of their own.
"When they get married, I'm not going to be the most important person there, and I know that," she said. "You go through a period of withdrawal, and then hopefully, you get to be best friends with their wife. And you have a good relationship, and then she'll call you and tell you what he's doing."