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Margin Notes

Helicopter parents: you’re cleared for takeoff


You’ve probably heard about, or even experienced, the phenomenon of “helicopter parents,” a term often used somewhat pejoratively to describe over-attentive parents unable to let go of their university-bound kids. Well, an interesting new monograph by the Association for the Study of Higher Education suggests we cut today’s parents – and their children – a bit of slack.

The report, entitled Parental Involvement in Higher Education: Understanding the Relationship Among Students, Parents, and the Institution, counsels higher education researchers and practitioners “to take their own college experience out of the equation as they consider student-family relationships today.”

From the report: “One of the primary reasons that student affairs administrators struggle to understand parents’ involvement is that it is inconsistent with how they understand the parent-college student relationship. Most student development courses emphasize the theory of separation-individuation and the idea that acquiring autonomy and independence from parents is a necessary component of emotional adjustment to college.”

However, the report advocates we instead consider attachment theory as an alternative theory that may help administrators to better understand today’s students and parents. Attachment theory was originally conceived to discuss infants’ relationships with their parental caregivers, but the report says the theory has recently begun to be applied to college students by human development researchers.

The report continues: “According to this theory, secure attachment relationships offer support in times of stress, allowing students to more confidently explore their new environment. Therefore, rather than needing a defined separation or break from parents, students may actually benefit from regular parental contact and support instead.”

I will concede the point, as the authors are far more versed on this topic than I am. And, young people do seem, in general, to be pretty well-adjusted and confident. But, I’d also like to point out that there is much discussion in the media of young adults who just don’t seem to grow up, who are “failing to launch” and stuck in “adultolescence” in their comfy basement abodes at home. What does attachment theory have to say about that?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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