The parent pop quiz: Helpful, hands-off, or helicopter?

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Is your parent or guardian helpful, hands-off, or helicopter? And what effect is that having on your college experience? Take our quiz, track your score, and click on the result for info and resources. Also check out students’ stories of parenting hits and misses.

Disclaimer: Expectations and norms around parenting, and the relationships between parents and their adult children, differ across cultures. In addition, parents and families have widely divergent access to relevant skills and resources influencing parenting styles and levels of involvement.

1. What do they say when they drop you off at college?

  • A: Drop me off—are you kidding? I got myself here.
  • B: “I can’t believe we have to work with that hippy professor this semester.”
  • C: “I’m just a phone call away, honey.”

2. What do they send you in  the mail?

  • A: Three perfect papers meeting your assignment requirements, starched and pressed.
  • B: The Ultimate Student Guide to Student Stuff.
  • C: Invoices for your tuition and 18 years of groceries.

3. What happens when they come see you for dinner?

  • A: They take you for a delicious meal and spend the whole evening saying they’re proud of you, with a brief nudge to dab the sauce off your chin.
  • B: They follow you to your grimy student kitchen and stand there looking hungry and expectant.
  • C: They bring a basket packed with organic superfoods, to be washed down with a bottle of breast milk.

4. What happens to your laundry?

  • A: Your parent drives 60 miles a week to bring you pristine bed linens and a batch of new outfits, including your underwear (ironed and folded).
  • B: You wear everything two or three times then eventually drag it to the laundromat.
  • C: When you call your guardian, they explain with endless patience what washing machines are for and where to put the quarters.

5. When you don’t get the grade you think you deserve, what happens?

  • A: You finally get hold of your folks, and they mention that your hometown Blisterin’ Burgers still has an opening.
  • B: They encourage you to make an appointment with your professor to discuss what went wrong and how to address it next time.
  • C: You attend a high-powered meeting in a nearby skyscraper with a team of their top lawyers, to which your professor has been summoned.

6. At your graduation, you expect them to…

  • A: Show up on time, have clean hair, and applaud in the right places.
  • B: Have a limo drive you all up to the stage, then accompany you to the podium, modestly acknowledging the applause.
  • C: Attend Uncle Eli’s barbecue instead. It’s been arranged for weeks.

Add up your score

  • A=1,  B=3,  C=2
  • A=3,  B=2,  C=1
  • A=2,  B=1,   C=3
  • A=3,  B=1,   C=2
  • A=1,  B=2,  C=3
  • A=2,  B=3,  C=1

Click on your score

The hands-off parent

If you scored 6–9, your parent or guardian seems pretty hands-off. You’ve likely been prepping your own dinner and attending your own parent-teacher conferences since 2005.

This is a lighthearted quiz and not diagnostic. For some families in some situations, hands-off parenting can work. But if you’ve experienced parental neglect, you’re not alone: Neglect is the most common form of child maltreatment, according to a 2012 report by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child.

Growing up with uninvolved parents can lead to anxiety and stress, delayed social and emotional maturity, academic struggles, and/or substance abuse. Recovery involves building your resilience skills.

When you could use support, consider reaching out to your campus counseling center or clergy.

Resilience tools: American Psychological Association

The helpful parent

If you scored 10–13, you may be one of the lucky ones: Your parent or guardian is helpful. They strike the balance between supporting you and promoting your independence.

Not surprisingly, supportive relationships between parents and their adult children are linked to well-being and health. Three out of four young adults say they get along a lot better with their parents now than they did in their mid-teens, according to theClark University Poll of Emerging Adults (2012).

Some tension between parents and their adult children is typical, but many families are able to work toward mutual understanding and solutions, according to a 2009 study. “Avoidance doesn’t work as a strategy for dealing with conflicts. It appears to make things worse,” said lead researcher Dr. Kira Birditt of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Worksheet for resolving family conflict: Clemson University

The helicopter parent

If you scored 14–18, you appear to have a helicopter parent or guardian. That might feel OK when they’re doing your laundry, but not when they’re choosing your major. True helicopter parents can undermine “the higher education goal of helping young adults develop the ability to think for themselves,” according to the George State University Law Review (2013). Among college students, helicopter parenting is associated with higher levels of depression, suggests a 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

But hold up—the evidence is mixed.Helicopter parenting is uncommon, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement, 2009. And although grown children who received intense support from their parents perceived it as too much, they also reported better psychological adjustment and life satisfaction in a 2012 study (Journal of Marriage & Family). That’s because parental support often meets real needs. Hands-on parenting is particularly important for students who are the first in their families to attend college, says the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012).

How my parent set me up for success

“I got a DUI and I paid for my lawyer, fines, and a new car. They have taught me that they will be there for me, but I need to fix my own problems or I will never learn.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Kansas

“My parents encouraged me to be my own advocate during difficult times. In junior high and high school, they encouraged me to talk to professors and administrators if I ran into problems, instead of them getting involved right off the bat.”
—Second-year graduate student, University of Wyoming

“My dad got me into whitewater kayaking at age 12. I continued to learn and practice and eventually train professionally to paddle deadly rivers, which has given me the confidence that nothing life throws at me will ever be too much.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Wyoming

“My mom was abused by my father, so her being able to get out of that situation and stand strong helped me.”
—Student, certificate program, Hancock College, California

“My mother always had me check into appointments, even when she was there. That has really helped me learn how to talk to people I don’t know, and it has surprisingly helped me be more comfortable at job interviews.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Wyoming

“Since I was 17 (I am 26) I have done my taxes on my own. My dad told me from the beginning that it’s my responsibility, no one else’s, to keep track of my finances. I keep track of my financial records online, and I also make/keep copies of any important documents.”
—Third-year graduate student, Northern Illinois University

Parents who could not always step up

Hands-off parents may lack emotional or behavioral skills, financial means, or other resources.

“I did not have the fortune of a family member who had been through college, so the entire experience was alien to me. I have no idea what I’m doing; I have no guidance.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Platteville

“My mom only encouraged me to be ‘normal’ or socially acceptable. Honestly, I developed an [emotional health disorder]. I was never prepared for anything.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Lander University, S Carolina

“My parents raised me to be agreeable. Now I have trouble dealing with people when they’re taking advantage or asking me favors that I don’t want to do.”
—First-year graduate student, University of Manitoba

“My mom kicked me out when I was 16 years old. I learned how to take care of myself.”
—First-year undergraduate, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina

“My parents unintentionally instilled racist prejudices in me.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“I wasn’t raised to handle emotion. In my family we either cry alone in a locked room and then pretend it never happened, or we suppress it entirely. Living away from home and starting a new life requires much more than common sense and financial responsibility. One’s internal self takes a beating.”
—Undergraduate, University of California, Riverside

“My family is messed up. Mom’s been in and out of jail, and my dad pays me child support but other than that doesn’t talk to me.”
—Undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta

The highs & lows of helicopter parents

“My parents rescue me when I’m upset or overwhelmed, so I’ve never had to deal with a crisis on my own. Gee, that sounds pathetic.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario

“I wasn’t allowed to choose exactly what I wanted when I first entered college. My mother thought I wouldn’t excel at the majors that interest me. I dropped out after a year since I didn’t know why I was there. It was my mother’s way or no way.”
—Second-year student, Empire State College, New York

“My parents expect me to act like an adult but treat me like a child.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

“Time management is extremely difficult. I’m so used to being told what to do. When [I’m] given a list of tasks and about 18 hours a day to do them, it’s hard to get things done.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Amherst

“Children in my family are not allowed to move outside of the parental household until after marriage. It has been difficult for me to move across states and into apartments by myself. Because of this fear that’s been instilled, I feel that I can’t necessarily take care of myself, even though I do.”
—Third-year graduate student, University of Delaware

“My mom is a businesswoman and very good at getting what she wants. Sometimes when I’ve been in trouble, I’ve used her to get out of it.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario

“We were upper middle class, and I think it was just assumed that money issues would not be anything I needed to worry about. This was a blatant disregard of reality. It led me down the primrose path to credit card disaster.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Empire State College, New York

What tasks do you not feel prepared to handle?

Source: Student Health 101 survey, March 2014.

In our survey, students said they were unprepared for certain demands. They most commonly cited:

  • Taxes
  • Personal finances
  • Student loans
  • Health insurance
  • Medical appointments
  • Car troubles
  • Choosing major/courses
  • Cooking

“I was never taught how to handle my own finances independently, so I commonly call my parents to inquire about money, taxes, loans, etc.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, Missouri University of Science and Technology

In what situations do you call home for support?

Problem & percentage who admit to calling home

  • Financial struggles — 60%
  • Physical health issue — 45%
  • Emotional health issue — 36%
  • Choosing a class or major — 33%
  • Domestic tasks, e.g., laundry or cooking —32%
  • Need job or internship — 31%
  • Bad grade or missed deadline — 24%
  • End of a close relationship — 15%
  • Difficulty meeting people or making friends — 10%
  • Reprimanded by faculty or administration — 5%
  • Arrested or other legal trouble — 3%

Source: Student Health 101 survey, March 2014

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