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At about the same time, members of the most neglected generation in American history—Generation Xers—began to have children, says Helen Johnson, an adviser to dozens of universities on parent relations and author of Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years. "They were latchkey kids, whose parents divorced in huge numbers and whose mothers often worked two full-time jobs—one outside the home and one running it. This generation tends to have children later, when they feel they have ample financial and emotional resources for parenting. Many of the mothers leave or cut back on their careers when they start families. Parenting becomes the vital enterprise of their lives."

The most notorious helicopter parents are those who become overinvested in their children's athletic pursuits, such as Jeff Doyal Robertson, who in 2005 shot his son's Canton, Texas, high school football coach, allegedly because the boy had been suspended from playing, and Thomas Junta, who in 2000 beat to death the father of one of his son's hockey teammates because he didn't like the way the man had supervised a game. Even when they refrain from homicidal impulses, parents of athletes can make stupendously bad choices. Take Terrell Mackey, a Lincoln, Nebraska, mother. Last spring, when her 15-year-old daughter failed to perform to Mackey's expectations in a YWCA soccer game, she forced the girl to repeat mantras about bettering her performance in the car on the way home from the game. "Every time the child messed up a sentence, the mother would slap the daughter," says Public Information Officer Katie Flood of the Lincoln Police Department. According to the police report, the mother hit her daughter on the face or head as many as 15 times, until she stopped the car and had the child get out on Interstate 80. The girl, still in her YWCA uniform, was picked up by a teammate's family as she trudged toward an exit ramp. Mackey was charged with child neglect.

A story like Mackey's sounds crazy— and it is—but parents who think they need to prepare their children for a very competitive world are responding to very real challenges, says Johnson. "It starts with the whole 'getting in' thing. You used to just sign up for preschool. Now you have to apply." And preschool is only the beginning. Public universities—such as the State University of New York at Purchase, Delta State University in Mississippi, and the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo—all currently accept about one in three applicants. For the class of 1950, Harvard University accepted about 52 percent of those who applied; for the class of 2009, Harvard accepted 9.1 percent of applicants—a record low.

Parents also know that life doesn't get easier after children finish their education: Entry-level wages for college graduates fell steadily from 2001 to 2005, and have only barely risen since then. During the past ten years, a university graduate's average student loan debt has increased about 58 percent.

Those are a few of the reasons that Robin Childress Witherspoon, 44, does everything she can to help her four children get the best possible jobs. She prepares résumés and cover letters for them, advises on appropriate hairstyles for interviews, and makes them practice shaking hands. An elementary school principal in Ferguson, Missouri, Witherspoon also tries to make professional contacts for her children.

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