Have helicopter parents landed in the UK?

Helicopter parenting – hovering above and “taking an overprotective or excessive interest” in your child’s life – is a big story in the US. There, we’re told, parents get over-involved in everything their university student offspring do. From sleeping on the floor of their dorm rooms to calling their professors to discuss their grades – which they can’t legally do.

And it doesn’t end at university – graduate programmes are rife with tales of parents accompanying their not-so-little darlings to interviews, with some graduate recruitment companies sending application forms to both parent and prospective employee.

I can feel the collective intake of UK parents’ breath: some of us thinking this is ridiculous, perhaps a small percentage daring to wonder if we could get away with such behaviour.

It’s useful to understand how the Americans have slipped into this habit. Most US schools have a “parent portal” system. It’s a means of seeing what your child is up to at school, all day, every day. Parents can log in and see if their child went to class, what grades she or he has received, and what homework has or hasn’t been handed in – for example, here’s the portal for Minneapolis public schools.

By the time kids are at college or university, everyone is used to this full disclosure.

Once their student offspring are over 18, parents can only continue to use a parent portal if their child signs a consent form. But it’s easy enough to sort that – does a kid want their parents to pay for this coming semester, or would they like to take out a loan? What about a food allowance? A decent phone? And do they want new clothes; or do they want to get a job as well as study? One of those questions is going to get your child to sign that form.

It’s a small step from there to feeling you have the right to be involved in every decision your child makes educationally, and subsequently in the world of work. So, could it happen here? In our buttoned-up, keep-things-to-ourselves, British society?

The turning point in terms of parent engagement has been the hike in tuition fees. Introduced in 1998 and increased threefold in 2012… it’s no wonder parents feel they have a stake in their child’s decision-making. Our kids may not be horrified by the tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt they’ll leave university with, but it scares the hell out of our generation.

Why wouldn’t we want to try to guide them a bit, take care of them and protect them from themselves?

Most universities in the UK report an upswing in the presence of parents at open days, which has been increasing each year since tuition fees started. Matthew Usher, UK student recruitment manager at Bournemouth University, says parents are often the first to speak at open days and there’ve been cases of parents pushing their kids on to courses. With a strongly vocal parent, shyer and less confident kids can miss the chance to explore the subjects they might have wanted to pursue.

The content of many university open days is now geared towards parents as well as students. But Bournemouth has gone one step further – it schedules its talk for parents at the same time as the one for students. With them running concurrently, there is no chance of parents gatecrashing the students’ session.

This makes it easier for both parties to get a clear view of what the university has to offer and gives students the opportunity to be open about what they really want to study. Usher isn’t critical of the engaged parents, but he feels that the two generations often look at things differently.

Several universities report that parental involvement can be quite intense throughout the application process, but all seem to agree that it calms down once the first year is in full swing. There might be a blip if students are unhappy with their accommodation, when parents will lobby for them.

Susan Finn, a mother from London, thought she was a helicopter parent. She went to every university with her daughters, armed with a notebook to keep a record of her thoughts on each one. So far, so fairly normal.

At her eldest daughter’s graduation party, she noticed her disappear into a spin-off event specifically for master’s students, to which parents were clearly not invited. Finn went in anyway, quizzed her daughter’s professors, and basked in the glory of the nice things they said.

She also took care to befriend the girls in both her daughters’ halls. “My girls won’t friend me on Facebook,” she says, “So I get their friends to friend me, and that way I can quietly stalk them and see what they’re up to.”

A bit intense, perhaps, but does she qualify as a helicopter parent? Hardly. Finn is an amateur by US standards. As far as I can tell, we all are. Like many parents, I haven’t even seen the inside of the building my son spends most of his life working in and I’m unlikely to until he graduates.

This is one US trend I think our basic Britishness just won’t abide – and for that we should be grateful.

(Source: TheGuardian)


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