Patricia Somers, PhD, University of Texas at Austin associate professor of higher education, is among the first academics to specifically research helicopter parents. She was stunned to discover how involved many of them are: In a study she conducted at 60 public universities and colleges, she found that 40 to 60 percent of parents engage in some type of helicoptering, such as helping with academic assignments, and as many as 10 percent actually write their children's papers for them.
Neither figure surprises Jim Settle, PhD, vice president of student affairs at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. At a seminar on campus issues a few years ago, a young woman raised her hand and said, "My mom has a question." She held up her cell phone and explained her mother had been listening in. Then her mom asked a question about campus security on the speaker.
Even after their children have graduated from college (and are, in theory, on their own), many parents continue to advocate for them. They often contact their adult children's employers. "Over the last three or four years, we've started getting all kinds of calls," says a recruiter for a Fortune 500 company. "Parents want to discuss offer letters and benefits, or information about 'work-life balance.' Or ask, 'Is Johnny going to be able to come home at Christmastime, because we take two weeks as a family at that time?' We had one call last summer because it was little Ginny's birthday and Mom wanted to know if we could have a cake delivered to her and sing 'Happy Birthday.'" The recruiter pauses. "[This is] Wall Street. We don't really do that around here."
Another mother called her late one night. After brief pleasantries, the woman said, "A few years ago, you interviewed my daughter, and you loved her. She turned your company down, but I have another daughter. She's a junior and she's fantastic.... So I was thinking it would be fantastic if you could hire her for the summer."
The recruiter explained that all the positions had been filled. The mother responded: "That doesn't work for me." To get the mother off the phone, the recruiter said she would talk with the daughter but assumed that the young woman would be too embarrassed by her parent's behavior to call. "But at 8:30 the next morning, the phone rang," says the recruiter. "It was the daughter, saying, 'Hi; I know you talked to my mom, so I wanted to get in touch with you right away!'" The young woman, who didn't know anything about the business, did not get the job.
Signs of superparenting surfaced in the 1980s, when mid to late boomers started putting the first BABY ON BOARD signs in minivan windows, says Donald Pollock, PhD, associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. That was around the time terrorism first began touching American lives—Iranian students backed by radical clerics held American hostages between 1979 and 1981; a suicide bomber blew himself up outside U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen in 1983. Starting in the 1990s, many Americans' fears moved from the big and the vague (Communism, the bomb, bad things happening "over there") to the specific horrors that began encroaching here, in places we can't help being: school (Columbine), home (Elizabeth Smart), and the office (9/11).
We Hear You!