Digging Deeper: Helicopter or Hands-Off Parenting for College Students?

Aug 12, 2018
Parent Conversations

It’s that time of year. Approximately 3 million US teens are getting ready to head off to their first year of college. Maybe you are sending your own kid off to school. Maybe you are in touch with students who are heading off to school, or with their parents. I decided to provide a bit of a survey of the articles that have popped up in the past couple of weeks on the subject looking for some pearls of wisdom we might be able to use. This one from last week’s reading list got me started. It is from Psychology Today, written by Deborah J Cohan, and written from the perspective of the student in the form of a letter to her mom. Here are some priceless tidbits pulled directly from this hypothetical letter:

  • You’ve gotten me this far. For that, I thank you. Now, let me go.
  • This is my launch, my flight. I may crash, but I probably won’t. So please don’t try to live it for me.
  • You may hear from me less than you would like, especially when life is going great. But try to let me set the pace and tone for how often we text and call. 
  • …….Just love me……..
  • …. please just don’t hold the money over my head with my performance or my choices in friends.
  • You know that Dr. Seuss book that I got for graduation, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Well, just think, there could be one for you: Oh, The Life You Can Have Now! So, go — do the things that might make you happy.
  • You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone. But remember: I will miss you, too. And we will both be okay. 

I went on to search for more advice, which ranges from don’t be a helicopter parent to maybe a little bit of helicoptering would be ok. The one thing all three of the next three articles had in common was encouraging students to go to a professor’s office hours in the early days, BEFORE there is a problem, BEFORE they need help, and BEFORE they think about contesting an exam grade!!!! Having taught at the college level, this is really great advice. Establishing a relationship with a professor can be one of the most rewarding experiences for the student (and the professor!)

USA Today had an article suggesting how parents can help their kids with three common problems.

  • If they have trouble making friends, encourage them to get out and keep trying. Remind them that no one’s life is really as wonderful as it looks like on social media, and that they can’t make friends if they don’t leave their dorm room!
  • Alleviate financial stress by taking an active role in sorting out their financial arrangements and seeking advice from the school and outside sources to make sure you both understand what is going on and what the requirements are. This is NOT the area to let them fly on their own.
  • Suggest your student NOT bite off too difficult of a schedule their first semester. If they begin to struggle academically, don’t be critical. Encourage them to seek help in the form of tutoring and talking with their professors

Austin360 published a blog with a professor’s advice for students heading off to school for the first time.  Here are the headline suggestions:

  • Create a routine
  • Take care of yourself
  • Don’t sacrifice a social life, but make time for being alone
  • Get academic direction (seek help from the professor sooner rather than later)
  • Take advantage of tutoring opportunities.
  • Know what mental health resources are available and how to access them.

And this article from the Washington Post includes eleven specific recommendations for your student, and one critical one for parents: “Trust your instincts.” You are aiming for somewhere between being totally hands off and helicopter parenting. A little advice and even nagging may be appropriate….let your instincts be your guide. From a personal perspective, I’d suggest you look for cues from your student as well.

Interested in reading more on parenting for all ages? Here is an NPR review of two books on the “overparenting” crisis.


Good luck to the students, and especially to their parents!

About the Author

Beth Tallman

Beth Tallman entered the working world armed with an M.B.A. in finance and thoroughly enjoyed her first career working in manufacturing and telecommunications, including a stint overseas. She took advantage of an involuntary separation to try teaching high school math, something she had always dreamed of doing. When fate stepped in once again, Beth jumped on the opportunity to combine her passion for numbers, money, and education to develop curriculum and teach personal finance at Oberlin College. Beth now spends her time writing on personal finance and financial education, conducting student workshops, and developing finance curricula and educational content. She is also the Treasurer of Ohio Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy.