Students heading to college this fall would be well advised to look up, down and all around. A slew of shiny new machines has arrived on campuses nationwide, albeit with familiar names.
Mom and Dad.
Remember hovering helicopter parents? That’s so last semester. Now our young-adult darlings must deal with parental stealth bombers, lawn mowers and drones who are ready to prod, protect and generally pester anyone from administrators to teaching assistants who threaten their student’s happy quotient.
This news was among many funny and enlightening takeaways delivered recently by Meaghan Miller Thul, director of the Parent and Family Program at the University of Minnesota.
Thul welcomed future Gopher parents, including yours truly, at an orientation that included a brief foray into heavy machinery. I am assuming her talk had nothing to do with my gleeful revelation to my youngest child (in front of her friends) that all that separated us come September would be a five-minute Green Line train ride from the U’s campus to my office. (Yes, I quickly retracted my statement and assured her that she’s not going to college to have lunch with me. Even though. … )
Thul reminded us that our role as parents of college-bound kids is shifting, as it should, from driver to helpful passenger.
“Trust yourself and your student,” advised Thul, who has worked in higher education for 17 years, including 11 years at the university in student services-related roles. “You have done the best possible job you could do in raising them, and they are wonderful and probably somewhat flawed human beings who will be successful and will also make mistakes. I advocate deep breathing a lot.”
Thul is all too aware of the helicopter parent. But as she dug into scholarly and lay articles on how best to prepare students for the big leap to higher education, she came across a growing list of other types of parenting best avoided. She now uses these terms when speaking to parents.
The helicopter: A quick refresher for the few of you who never got this memo. This refers to the family member who hovers, “ready to tackle any challenge for his or her student,” Thul said. “They don’t give their student air or space” to identify — and solve — problems for themselves.
“Caring about how their child is doing comes from a good place,” she said. It’s a place of love and concern. But if we really are serious about launching them, we need to back off.
“Sometimes my advice is, ‘Your student needs to take care of it, but I’ll tell you who he or she should call [at the university] to help them remedy the problem.’ They need to handle it — and they can handle it.”
The stealth bomber: This parent flies under the radar, with the university and even the student unaware that anything is amiss. Then, suddenly, the student faces a problem — difficult roommate, low grade, no detergent in the laundry room — and the stealth bomber parent demands to speak to everyone on campus, sending letters to the president and causing general chaos.
The lawn mower: This adult wants to clear away all obstacles and barriers for the student.
“I tell them that the person who does the work does the learning,” Thul said. If students are not removing those barriers themselves — which, for the most part, they can and should — they’re not learning to be successful.
“This is not about, ‘Let’s see how hard we can make it for them.’ Yes, there are policies and sometimes expectations students don’t like, but part of life is navigating those expectations and policies.”
The drone: This “particularly entertaining” type, Thul said, describes a family member with passwords to all the student’s accounts who is “quietly spying.”
“This is really inappropriate and doesn’t facilitate positive communication between the student and family member,” Thul said. “Hopefully, you’ve trained them as to what is and is not appropriate and you can dial back. We tell students, ‘Don’t give anyone your passwords. You will be held responsible.’ ”
The submarine: This is most similar to the helicopter, but, instead of hovering overhead, the submarine operates from “down pretty deep, not necessarily seen, maybe sending out pings,” Thul said. It’s a type of parenting that prevents the child from experiencing the satisfaction of growing independence.
But what kind of lesson would this be without a happy ending?
I asked Thul to mull it for a while and come up with a machine or modern device that we do want to emulate as parents launching our children into college. And her winning idea is this:
The thermostat: This parenting approach, Thul said, allows parents to “adjust the temperature if at first it’s not right. If things are cool or off-kilter, you maybe turn up the heat just a bit. If things are too warm, you turn on the air conditioner and try to cool things off.”
Best of all, moms and dads, “you have auto shut-off when the right temperature is reached.”