It wasn’t long after Mike Leach was fired from Texas Tech University that the veteran football coach tossed around his own accusation: helicopter parents.
ESPN broadcaster Craig James alleged that Leach mistreated his son Adam, a sophomore receiver for the Raiders. Leach fired back by telling national news media outlets that James was harder to deal with than all the other parents on the team combined.
“I think he used his position at ESPN to try to coerce me into allowing Adam to play more,” Leach told the New York Times.
No matter where the truth lies in Leach v. James, parents lobbying (read: meddling) on behalf of their children has advanced past the Little League field and into the classroom, college dorm and even corporate America.
“[Parents] have kind of a rose-colored view of their son or daughter’s athletic prowess,” said Ed Brucker, Marian Central High School football coach. “I think probably every coach runs into that from time to time.”
Some argue that it’s a much more serious problem, however. Jim Fay, co-founder of the Love and Logic Institute, called the parenting trend a flat-out epidemic.
“Hovering, protecting – trying to engineer a perfect life for the kids,” Fay said.
Fay noticed the problem of overinvolved parents as a school administrator in the 1970s. Parents at his school routinely would bring lunches for children who had forgotten them.
“I went home one day ... and said to my wife, ‘We’ve got to build a helicopter pad outside the school to land all these helicopter parents,’ “ he said.
Fay was credited with coining the term when he co-wrote a book in 1990 with Foster W. Cline, titled “Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility.”
Since then, he’s worked to buck the trend because, he said, it has resulted in a generation of irresponsible and vulnerable adults.
“We’re creating an awful lot of kids who have a real hard time facing the real world when they get there,” Fay said.
Parents will do homework or spearhead projects for their children in elementary school. They will try to intimidate teachers into giving higher grades, and come senior year of high school, they’ll micromanage college applications. Fay said it didn’t end there.
“It’s not uncommon now for young college students to have a problem with the professor, speed dial their cell phone, and say, ‘Here, talk to [my] mother; she’ll straighten this out,’” Fay said.
But most of the parents who try to “rescue” their children are doing so with good intentions.
Denise Rode, director of Orientation and First-Year Experience at Northern Illinois University, said many parents just want to stay in the loop when junior heads off to school.
“I think they generally want to understand what their student’s experience is going to be in college,” Rode said. “I don’t think they intentionally want to interfere, but they do want information.”
When a son or daughter heads to college, it’s an adjustment for the whole family, not just the student, Rode said. To help everyone involved in the transition, the university has special activities for the families of incoming students during orientation days.
Students and families gather at the start of orientation for a formal welcome from university administrators. Then students break off into small groups with orientation leaders, while their families meet with representatives from their students’ academic programs.
“We really want parents to be well-informed and consider themselves an important part of this experience, too,” Rode said.
Parents also have a vested, financial interest in their kids’ college experience, especially with the cost of college skyrocketing.
Two semesters at Northern Illinois University currently costs more than $6,000 for full-time, undergraduate Illinois residents. Private schools such as Northwestern University can cost as much as $38,000.
“It is really a big investment for most families, so there is a growing desire, I think, to make sure that this investment has good return,” Rode said.
As their children progress through college, most parents recognize that they need space and to assume increasingly more responsibility.
Other parents have a hard time letting go, and when the post-college job search rolls around, some parents are just as involved as ever.
Many parents take it upon themselves to help their children network and prep for job interviews. Contrary to what Fay would say, some think that’s a good idea.
“It makes total sense. That’s what parents are for,” said Ryan Healy, co-founder of Brazen Careerist, a social network for young professionals.
Healy said parents definitely should introduce their kids to business associates and colleagues who might be able to help in their children’s career pursuits. And a little bit of résumé and interview advice isn’t bad, either.
“When you’re young and in your 20s ... and you’re starting out in the workplace, how many people do you know that you can go to or be your mentor?” Healy said.
In 2007, Healy wrote in a blog post that expecting parents to assist in job searches was similar to the way newly drafted NFL athletes have agents negotiate salary terms and CEOs have attorneys review compensation packages.
Healy also said that when it came to his own career search, his father helped him land a summer internship at Merrill Lynch.
The business world hasn’t rejected that parenting style, either.
Leading companies such as Merrill Lynch and Ernst & Young offer welcome kits and tours for the moms and pops of interns and job candidates.
“Corporate America realized that there are all these kids who are really friends with their parents. Their parents help them out a lot more than they did in the past,” Healy said.
So from the looks of it, unless millennials have a major change of heart about the premise of the parent-child relationship, helicopter parenting might be here to stay. That is, for as long as there are parents coaching from the sidelines of youth sporting events.
“All parents are interested in seeing their son or daughter succeed,” said Brucker, the Marian Central football coach. “Some of them can do it from a distance and not meddle.”