Let’s not get carried away with Helicopter Parents

5 Sep

University and college classes start today for one of the most cash-strapped, debt-burdened, under-employed cohorts of post-secondary students this country has ever seen.[1] But that’s not the story.

Instead, on the radio, in the newspaper, online and among many university instructors, the focus is on “entitled” students, “coddled” first-years, and “helicopter parents.”

I’m especially ashamed that these discussions are happening in the halls of academe because they rest on stereotypes, and as academics, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, our job is to look deeper. We are trained to challenge stereotypes, to critically reflect on the taken-for-granted bits of cultural discourses, and to ‘make the familiar strange’ by destabilizing the seemingly unassailable categories and characters that populate our worldviews.

We’re supposed to recognize that how we see and interpret the world depends on how we’re embedded in it – where we fall in the complex web of intersecting identities, class positions, racialization, power and gender relations, historico-political and economic conditions – we know this.

And yet we accept on faith the notion that students today are entitled – more entitled than we ever were – about their education. We claim, based on our experiences with one or two students out of hundreds, that they generally think they should get an A for just showing up, or not showing up, for writing ten pages of nonsense, or for writing no pages at all.

We roll our eyes and jab at the meddling parents who call their children’s professors when things go awry, who move in to residence to help their offspring settle in during the first week, and who talk to their sons and daughters every night on the phone before bed. Although we’ve only dealt with one or two personally, we spread the word that these helicopter parents are everywhere: coddling their baby grown-ups, hovering just overhead, and swooping in to fend off bad marks, rejected applications and punishment for bad decisions. Everyone has a story about these parents and ‘kids.’

I mean a story – it seems that one single encounter (one’s own or someone else’s) with an overbearing parent is enough to conclude that helicopter parents and entitled students are the defining features of our contemporary post-secondary landscape.

We should know better.

If we’re good old-fashioned empiricist ‘numbers people’, we should be asking how many parents have actually called a son’s or daughter’s professor. It just so happens such research already exists, and it suggests that the helicopter parents phenomenon is both overstated and misunderstood. We should be doing more research and collecting data on how students really view their post-secondary education. Do they think they’re ‘entitled’ to good marks or a certain level of ‘service’ from their professors? How are such expectations formed? Do they evolve over the course of a four-year degree? And how much have students’ expectations really changed, holding everything else constant, over the last few decades? After all, there’s research from 1986 complaining about student entitlement (among med students, no less). How different is today’s ‘entitlement’ from the ‘narcissism’ we worried about in the 1970s?

Even if there have been changes, we need to ask why, and we need to widen our focus to include changes at the level of society, politics, the economy and culture. (We find it easy to point to technological changes and their impact on behaviour – the Internet, for example, is often blamed for a perceived cultural shift toward instant gratification – it’s shouldn’t be that much of a stretch to imagine the impacts of changing employment relations, stagnating wages, increased university enrolment and changing family forms.)

For example, in a short radio segment about helicopter parents this morning, CBC reported that parents today are likely to be involved in filling out university applications and choosing a post-secondary school for their children. Universities are even holding orientation sessions for parents. The undertone of this report was that parents are getting nosier and kids are increasingly unable to make decisions without mommy and daddy. The assumption is that high school graduates in the 1960s and 70s were more adept at navigating the maze of post-secondary enrolment. But we ought to consider what the maze looked like back then. Maybe it was a little less complex. Maybe you were more likely to just go to the institution your Dad went to, or the one in your hometown, or the only one that offered the program you wanted to enroll in. Maybe you made the decisions alone because they were easier, and because we hadn’t yet entered our present age of uncertainty, individual responsibility and risk — where neoliberal policies download the costs of education and other public goods to increasingly smaller communities and individuals, where statistics show that the standard employment relationship is slowly ceding way to short-term employment with less job security, where ‘risk‘ is a pervasive discourse used for understanding everything from diseases to crime to drug use to insurance, investments, business and economic development.

All of this is to say that we should see the anecdotal evidence we have as a reason to ask more questions, not an answer. At most, we can take it as evidence of powerful discourses and ideas, and this is interesting on its own. It tells us that we’re hungry for stereotypes, especially when it comes to ‘generational’ differences. It suggests we want an easy lens through which to view social and cultural change – all the better if it pushes politics and economics to the background. Even better, moreover, if it makes us (the older, less entitled ‘generation’) look stronger, more sensible and more virtuous in the process.

[1] Across Canada, according to the latest numbers available from Statistics Canada CANSIM tables, student unemployment sat at 14% in 2011. (Note that the ‘unemployed’ include only those who are looking for work – many more are counted as ‘not in the labour force.’) The average cost for an undergraduate degree for students who leave the parental home is $80,000, and being unemployed means more of that is debt. In fact, the average student graduates with upwards of $27,000 of debt, and all that debt takes, on average, 14 years to pay off. See here and here for more.


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