The Tale of the Horrible Helicopter Parent
In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, today whY genY takes a look at the haunting, horrific phenomenon of the hovering helicopter parent.
I was a college senior in my last 100-level course, a 250-person science lecture at 8 a.m. three days a week that I’d been avoiding for as long as possible, when my professor called my mom a “helicopter parent” (to her face)!
Here’s what happened: It was just after Spring Break, and everyone had trouble getting back to campus due to a freakish late blizzard that closed interstates across the state for more than 24 hours. That week I was home, getting my wisdom teeth out while still on the parents’ insurance, while my friends frolicked in the Florida sun.
After two snow days, Wednesday was to be the first day back and the professor refused to reschedule that day’s test or accept late exams for those having trouble getting back to school.
So, with an aching jaw (you can’t take meds and drive!), I sat on the interstate for several hours on Tuesday evening, trying to get back for one of the final tests of my college career. Finally, I ended up stopping at a town in between, crashing a few hours with a friend student teaching there, and getting up at four a.m. to make it back in time for the test (which I aced, by the way).
As you can imagine, putting myself through all that made my lovable-but-fiery mother a little irate. The problem occurred because she’s actually part of my university’s staff and is an expert at hunting down things like e-mail addresses and direct office lines on the university web page.
Though I was mortified by her phone rant at my professor, I still love her for being indignant on my behalf. But was it just one of those facts of life? Yes. Was I fully capable of handling the situation myself? Yes. And so, I sucked it up and apologized to the instructor, but never forgot the incident.
HOVERING PARENTS: MORE HARM THAN GOOD
Helicopter parents are commonly derided by generally Boomer-aged university educators (ironically who themselves might have Gen Y kids). Though many, like my mom, have their kids’ best interests at heart, that kind of behavior really is detrimental to our generation’s future growth. Here’s why.
A big part of growing up is being able to adapt and solve problems that arise in everyday life. From credit card billing disputes to an unsavory landlord to car problems, there are existing processes to diagnose and resolve issues. When parents try to hard to “make it all ok,” we Gen Yers lose out on those coping mechanisms essential for adulthood. Instead of thinking, “Ok, don’t freak out, you can handle this,” our inner monolog never even opens its mouth – instead it’s speed dial on the cell phone to Mom and Dad. While parents can offer necessary background and reminders, they won’t be around forever and we have to be able to deal with that it’s-just-life stuff of the everyday variety.
Accepting feedback and responsibility
Employers hate hurting Gen Yer’s feelings, and often soft-pedal good advice in fear of crushing morale of delicate young employees. Ask most young people and they’re dying for honest critiques and ways to improve and ascend the corporate ladder – but many times, can’t take it when the feedback is negative, even when constructively phrased. When times get tough, helicopter parents are always running interference, acting as a buffer in tough times.
We Gen Yers have to be more level-headed and tough-skinned – it’s not all about our self-esteem in the real world. Accepting responsibility means you might screw up. You might get fired. You could even have to get yourself out of a mess. But, you will also learn essential skills, faster than peers who just can’t take the heat.
Self-directed work, setting priorities and timelines
When helicopter parents are in control, Gen Yers have very little opportunity to establish effective processes and find their own this-is-what-works-for-me. When it’s always there for us, why would we waste time doing it a different way. That’s dangerous for young employees in their first job or leading a first big project – because there are no rules. Part of doing the job is time management, and if you can’t keep yourself to a schedule, you sure can’t get others to stick to a timeline. You see it in parents who still set curfews when students are back on breaks or summer vacations, or call to “check in” on how university projects or classes are going. That’s just not appropriate for Gen Yers who need to manage their own time to make it in the real world.
Giving Gen Yers a false sense of power or authority
Most Gen Yers have Boomer parents – historically a generation of questioners, resisters, and activists. It’s no wonder we’re pros at questioning authority, and often don’t know where the line is between us and those in power. Professors and bosses tell stories of young pros inappropriately giving feedback “up,” skirting accepted processes and hierarchies and generally expecting the world to revolve around the Gen Yer.
Now, I’m not an advocate of giving respect to higher-ups “just because.” You have to earn my respect, I don’t care how old or experienced you are. But it’s remarkably easy to do, too – I know I have a lot of learning and living to do and can gain wisdom from you.
However, it’s inane and infuriating to see my peers getting super upset when they can’t immediately enact change, have access to top leadership or pick their own projects or timelines. At some point, we got to thinking we were the center of the universe. Instead of stopping about when the diaper age ended, helicopter parents coddled and prodded us into the limelight and gave a disproportionate sense importance. Humble pie, here we come.
Dealing directly with conflict
Though this is kind of part of autonomy and dealing with feedback, directly approaching difficult situations sometimes is impossible for young pros. I admit to engaging in long-winded e-mail arguments, rife with misinterpretation of tone and silly he-said-she-said. Texted arguments is a common Gen Y relationship-killer – but it continues because it’s easy.
We aren’t the awesomest at simply taking criticism, remaining neutral and working through issues. Parent-as-buffer doesn’t help you learn to break problems into specific issues, control your emotions and worth through conflicts professionally. We need to remember that sometimes, face-to-face is best, even if it’s hard.
And even if your mom calls your prof on a snowy day thinking words that she would have washed your mouth out with soap for using.