The email arrived more than a year ago on a spring afternoon, but it continues to astound me even today.
The father of one of our undergraduates was writing to ask for an appointment. On the surface, this is not an unusual request. As dean of engineering at Georgia Tech, I try to be as accessible as possible to students, parents, alumni, sponsors, and all constituents.
It’s what he wanted to talk about that stunned me: He wanted to discuss the final exam his son had recently taken.
I thought: an appointment with a dean to discuss an exam? Really? Another email recently appeared in my inbox from the parent of a student complaining on behalf of their child who felt that the “tests are poorly run” in a class. The parent suggested that I take a serious look at this course. Should this student not talk with their professor him/herself before the parent contacts the dean? In the back of my mind, I heard that familiar rumbling rhythm – another helicopter in a steady hover.
The modern phenomenon of the helicopter parent has been a hot topic of talk shows and op-eds, journal articles and think pieces. Several studies have explored the practice of “over parenting” and its effects on children and young adults. The general consensus of this research: Though parental involvement is a plus, too much of a good thing is potentially harmful.
One study found that college students with so-called “helicopter” parents are more inclined to resist new ideas and actions (Keene State College, 2010). Over parented students also report using more medication for anxiety and depression (UT Chattanooga, 2011) and are less engaged in school (Brigham Young, 2012). They say they feel “less satisfied with family life,” and they have “lower levels of psychological well-being” (University of Mary Washington, 2013).
Not every conclusion to every study is negative – some families report they’re quite happy with their model of overprotective parenting. By and large, however, the research findings are troubling for adolescents and young adults transitioning to adulthood. The safe cover of a mother’s “umbrella” or a father’s “shield” is really not all that safe in the long run. It delays the arrival of maturity and pushes independence to another day.
This approach to parenting is particularly problematic in the development of an engineer. To be a successful engineer, one must have more than science and mathematics acumen. A good engineer must be innovative and persistent in the pursuit of solutions and resilient when confronted by setbacks. Engineers have to be unafraid to challenge or assert a point of view. Finally, engineers must be unflinching in the face of failure – because failure is part of the process.
The emergence of such qualities in a young engineer is arrested when well-intentioned parents insist on structuring, managing, and mitigating the education of their college student. Self-reliance, after all, must be experienced to be adopted. But such experience never comes if mom or dad is constantly saying, I got this.
Imagine: What if Robert Goddard had helicopter parents? The engineer who built and successfully tested the world’s first rocket using liquid fuel – and who believed in the viability of space travel nearly a half-century before it became a reality – first had to overcome widespread ridicule and failure. Would that perseverance have been stunted if his parents had stepped in to solve his early problems for him?
We have young Robert Goddards at our universities today. They are the women and men studying to become tomorrow’s engineers and innovators. To help ensure that they have every chance of succeeding, Georgia Tech works to develop their independence and self-sufficiency in addition to providing a first-class engineering education.
As the father of a college freshman studying computer science, I am not completely unsympathetic to my fellow parents. My daughter is constantly challenged by her coursework. Although I am always there to help, I have to resist the temptation to do the work for her. As I tell her all the time, I already did well in calculus … there is no need for me to repeat it. Furthermore, I would not think of contacting any of her professors (let alone her dean) about an academic issue. If my own parents had done so when I was an undergraduate, I would have been mortified.
As flying machines, helicopters are a marvel. But as the great journalist Harry Reasoner reminded us when covering the Vietnam War back in 1971:
A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other. If there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying.
Parents, let your kids fly. Step away from the controls, and let them fly.