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Understanding parents’ role in university life

Last December, I convened a group of faculty and staff leaders to reflect on some “big picture” questions, such as “How are Elon students different from those of five years ago?” That question sparked discussion about the active involvement of parents of today’s students in university life. The phenomenon of hovering or “helicopter” parents is not unique to Elon and is a hot topic in higher education today. It raises a number of delicate questions, challenging parents to consider how to help their students develop as capable, independent problem-solvers who are ready to accept the consequences of their actions. How can parents teach their sons and daughters to handle disappointment and even occasional failure without stepping in and trying to fix things for them? At what level should parents be involved in the life of the university and, conversely, what constitutes inappropriate involvement?

At Elon we are proud to count parents as supportive partners who are involved in many positive and important ways. Many parents attend their students’ performances, plays and athletic events. Parents and former parents serve on the many boards and councils of the university, including the Board of Trustees; many non-alums have even adopted Elon as a second alma mater. In times of crisis, such as immediately following 9/11, strong communication between the university and parents was extraordinarily helpful in ensuring that students felt support and comfort. Parents have championed many new facilities at Elon and have been generous in ensuring that students without financial means have scholarship opportunities. Correspondence from parents to me is almost always thoughtful, constructive and genuinely supportive of the university’s mission.

Parental involvement can become counterproductive, however, when students are deprived of the opportunity to learn to solve problems independently. Students grow when they take steps to solve problems at the source, usually by talking about the issue directly with the other party, be it a roommate, a professor or a staff member. They also gain important adult skills if they find it necessary to turn to other sources for help and advice, such as resident advisors or academic department chairs.

Ninety-five percent of Elon students rated their Elon education as excellent or good on the recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Even given such favorable student attitudes about Elon, all students inevitably will encounter some disappointments –– including lower than expected grades in some courses or on some assignments. A low grade may result from a lack of preparation on the student’s part or work that is clearly below a student’s level of ability. Feedback about grades presents opportunities for teachable moments, in which faculty members encourage greater effort and help students learn to achieve at higher levels. While parents will naturally want to provide general encouragement about persisting through challenges at Elon, they should be watchful about not encroaching on the special relationship between faculty members and students.

As a parent of a high school senior and a college junior, I understand in very personal terms how difficult it is to avoid being a hovering parent, no matter how well meaning. It is a very hard thing indeed to let go, to step back and to allow my daughters the space they need to complete their journey to adulthood. But isn’t the wondrous experience of watching the emergence of intelligent, independent and capable young people well worth giving up the keys to the helicopter?

Leo M. Lambert
President