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Joysticking Parents vs Helicopter Parents: Who Wins?

While we were sitting at an indoor soccer tournament in Kentucky last Friday night for one of our sons, I encountered a joysticking parent - a crazy dad on the other team who was pacing, yelling, jumping, and growling. I felt embarrassed for him, and especially his child who seemed dejected at times. Who wins in the battle of joysticking parents or helicopter parents? Ultimately, I don’t think there are any “winners,” but it did prompt me to think about how parenting can impact the college search process.

The term “helicopter parents'' was coined in 1990 by child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay; they wrote that these parents “hover over and then rescue their children whenever trouble arises.” Intentional parenting and how parenting has evolved from the 1960s through today can be studied from a variety of lenses - sociology, psychology, education, and even family development. Signs such as “Baby on Board,” playdates, achievement cultures, missing child photos on milk cartons – all can be attributed to a change in parenting styles.

Joystick parents may have originated in youth sports, but I think their impact is wider. Think about when you used to play video games and how you would control every move of your little Pac-Man as it ate fruit and little bubbles.

If you sit near a joystick parent at a sporting event, you will hear them constantly yelling at their child and telling them what to do. Faster! To the right! You can do better! The South Carolina Youth Soccer Association recently had to implement “Silent September” for games - basically instructing all parents and fans to be quiet and think about their actions.

Joystick parents often show their Atari skills in conversations about choosing a major and career. Joystick parents tend to like “definite” or “concrete” careers like doctor, lawyer, and engineer. More “nebulous” majors such as history, communication, or the dreaded creative writing make them uncomfortable. They are not paying thousands of dollars for a degree in renaissance art!

Working on campus in higher education, I’ve also met Sherman tank parents - these parents attempt to plow over and bulldoze any challenge, real or imaginary, to “help” their child. Many years ago, I was holding a student conduct hearing with a student. The student and I were the only people in the room. And then I heard someone cough. The student’s parent was on their cell phone - listening and on speakerphone. I asked them to introduce themself and “welcomed” them to the hearing. Neither the student nor parent seemed perplexed or phased by this encounter. Has the parent always been there - in the middle of - such key moments for this student before? Will the parent be there in future key moments? How will this affect the child’s independence? Their future spouse, partner, or family?

So what does this all mean in the world of college counseling? We know some college counselors who won’t even talk with or communicate with parents. Some have even left the field or have to implement strict guidelines about talking with parents. Bryan Garman, Head of School at the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, had to encourage parents to focus on the educational journey and not call or make demands from blocked numbers.

We strive to work with families and be inclusive in our process. But ultimately, much of our work and focus are on the student. We want the college search to be about the student, understanding their preferences, helping them discover and find their passions. At times, we have had to have tough conversations with families. Who is pushing a student to apply to a certain college? Perhaps the parent’s alma mater? Which colleges do the parents envision? Which colleges are being considered by the student? If a student is not invested in the application or test preparation processes, how are they going to be invested when they get admitted (if they do)?

As we have shared before, we use the driving metaphor - eventually it is assumed the parent will get out of the car.

We are parents; our oldest turned 16 this past week and still has his learner’s permit. He is not ready (nor are we) to get his driver's license. We are still working on making sure he doesn’t hit mailboxes. But we know at some point, the decision and choices will rest with him. Ultimately (bad pun coming on), the drive to drive has to start with him.

Sometimes as parents, we need to let our children experience natural consequences. Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost at Oregon State University, perhaps said it best.

So as parents, what mistakes do we allow our children to learn from? When do we hover? When do we let them soar? And when do we just get out of the way?

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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