“Oh, we are definitely not helicopter parents. She puts all this pressure on herself.”
“We would love to just step back and let him do the whole college process but he’s not quite reaching his potential… we don’t think… at least in our opinion.”
“She/he has just worked SO hard! We just want to do all that we can to give him/her all the support he/she needs.”
Raise your hand if any of these sentences could have come from your mouth. If you’re standing with your hand in the air, don’t worry; it doesn’t automatically mean that you will have rotors sprouting out of your head. All it means is that you genuinely love your child, which only makes you a ‘potential’ helicopter parent. Over the past fifteen years, after visiting thousands of homes, let’s just say we at Blue Train have seen the Apocalypse Now of helicoptering: shouting, crying, shutdowns, meltdowns, physical confrontations, you name it… My goodness, nothing like that would ever happen at our house! Good, but also be careful of the quieter, slow cracking pressure that can drain students of natural joy and drive, and rob them of their one chance to be sixteen/seventeen. Whether loud or low and steady, behind every thump of a helicopter rotor can be heard the thump of a loving heart. This is true.
So the question becomes: How do I love my child, help ensure their success and happiness, without becoming a hovering, controlling machine of doom? Well, the good news is that none of these aspects is naturally at odds with any other. Much like organizing a wedding, the college process only becomes ugly when the participants behave in ugly ways. Rather than succumb to the gossipy, manufactured hysteria, families need to maintain awareness of all the competing factors, goals and points of view that threaten to destroy what should otherwise be a wonderful experience. Each year we see hundreds of Blue Train families navigate with balance and grace, not because they are superior humans or because their children have any lower ambitions, but because they stay on the healthy side of the following Do’s and Don’ts:
- Don’t try to be ahead of the timeline. This is probably the quickest indicator of a true helicopter. Whether the goal is to gain advantage over the competition, or simply “get it over with”, fact is the college process cannot be rushed or manhandled. Experience has shown us over and over that students who do things at the right time do better than students who do things ahead of the right time. Be in rhythm, not ahead of rhythm. Helicopters are notoriously the first, the fastest, and often the most miserable.
- Don’t double prep for ACT and SAT. Making sure they have “covered all their bases” to the point of overkill is the hallmark of a helicopter. True test prep experts (who aren’t trying to squeeze you for more money), will tell you that it doesn’t make sense for a student to prepare for two different exams during the same testing cycle (spring or fall.) Sure, a scared child will agree to this double prep because his or her helicopter is telling them it will benefit them. Unfortunately, our long term analysis proves that students only have a certain amount of time, energy and resilience to process ups and downs; therefore, students who double prep, despite doing more work, finish with lower peaks.
- Don’t micromanage test prep, essays or apps. You made the best peanut and butter jelly sandwich on the block and nobody’s schedule is as organized as yours. Of course it makes sense to orchestrate how much prep homework your child should do, how they should start their essay, and which school they should ultimately attend with a smile. Unfortunately this constant hovering and interference creates tension and conflict, which leads to anxiety and reduced performance, which leads to unhappiness. Helicopters need to step back and let the student know that this is their process. They may need help along the way but not everyday micromanaging.
- Don’t let college rankings warp your mind. Too often families abort all common sense and focus solely on where a school lies in the rankings of US News & World Report (or some other equally arbitrary ranking system.) What these families sacrifice in the name of #7 Undergraduate Business School is, well, everything else. Size, location, types of students, what they do for fun, in other words everything that makes an experience an experience. Families that choose primarily by ranking should also consider pre-arranged marriages, only watching the top shows and allowing the waitress to order you the most popular dish. Rankings are just one aspect, yet helicopters tend to fetishize them.
- Don’t try to become a college counseling sleuth. Much the same way diagnosing yourself with Google MD can lead you to believe that your arm will fall off and rot in the next 24 hours from a rare tropical disease, so too can spending too much time online reading college facts and forums. It is not necessary to know what Josh from Ohio believes Yale is looking for in an interview; neither is it important to make an Excel spreadsheet of admittance percentages and other irrelevant data. Research the schools and experiences more than the gossipy nooks and crannies of the admissions process.
- Don’t spend too much time listening to veterans of the college war. You know exactly who we’re talking about, the mother who speaks about how she “got her four kids into top schools” then proceeds to tell you to do every other don’t on this list. Let us be the first to tell you three out of the four children were absolutely miserable during the process and they all would have gotten into great schools regardless of the dinner table machine gun fire. If listening to these veterans makes you at all anxious, then let us be the first to tell you that you are excused. Only future helicopters hover and take copious notes.
- Don’t believe that spending more money is the key. Bottom line, wherever there is fear there are snake oil salesmen with bottles labeled “Cure.” Whether it be private counselors who do little more than surround themselves with college posters and crack the whip on deadlines, or prep companies that charge exorbitant rates for nothing more than the promise of secret techniques, these people are preying on your fears. No doubt grounded, reputable prep is an investment that can lead to more college options and bigger merit scholarships but do spend wisely. Avoid ‘helicopter think’ that more is better.
And here are the Do’s:
- Be equals in the process. As much power as you have, ultimately it’s the student who has to do the work and go off to college, which means everyone has skin in the game, which means everyone should respect everyone else’s opinion equally.
- Understand the pressure from student’s point of view. For a teenager the whole process of competing against your friends to go someplace you barely know all so you can join, wait what, the real world? Yes, it’s all a very strange passage, with adults wandering around whispering about it all the time. Add to that the pressures of your friends’ scores and college lists versus your self esteem while trying to keep up your grades in classes you don’t have time for, and oh yeah you’re a teenager dealing with the one million other teenage problems.
- Encourage but don’t patronize. “I encourage him all the time but he just doesn’t believe I mean it.” We hear this often from helicopters after they receive an eye roll for comments like “You see, now you know all you need to do is work a little harder. You can do it.” Unlike patronization, encouragement doesn’t have an agenda. It should be pure of heart and intention. This is your child, not a college Frankenstein project. Unlike helicopters, show your son or daughter that you know the difference.
- Be flexible during college list building. So often we will see conflicts develop over whether or not a school should even be put on the list. In more cases than not, this can be resolved with a little flexibility on either side. Dad, let Son put the big fun state school on and Son will put on Dad’s East Oklahoma alma mater. Be flexible, because everything changes when the rejections, acceptances and scholarships come back. Argue then.
- Bite your fingernails in the closet. Whereas helicopters like to wear their anxiety as a burden of war, we suggest that you shield your child from any overt worries. Discuss your concerns with your spouse, tutor, the person behind you at the grocery store, but don’t voice them to your children and add any more bricks to their backpack. Bottom line, your children are like lightning rods and your anxiety will end up at the shaky tip of their number two pencil. Shield them and they will perform better and rise higher.
- Speak directly about college realities. In the bullet point above it may sound as though we are suggesting to shield your children from the realities of applying to college but that is not the case. Above we are speaking about anxiety; on the contrary, it is advised to be open about things such as financial aspects, scholarship needs and efforts, and what everyone hopes for at the end of the day. Helicopters mix up anxiety and fact based conversations; don’t do that.
- Talk about other things. One of the most amazing phenomena of the college process occurs the day after the last application is submitted. Parents and children actually start talking about things other than college. More than that, they begin to laugh and enjoy spending time together more than ever before. Families that are able to practice this non-college-based communication are able to keep that happiness throughout the entire process.
First of all, congratulations on most likely NOT becoming a helicopter parent. We say this because unredeemable helicopters would have Terminator-scanned for useful stats and figures before clicking right back over to How to Beat Your Friends and Neighbors at Life. Reading to the end of this entry shows a desire to build process awareness in yourself, which we believe is the best way to shut down those pesky rotors and show your love. We know finding and applying to colleges can be overwhelming and stressful at times but how much so depends less on reality and more on how vulnerable we are to outside pressures. Do your best to stay on the right side of the Do’s and Don’ts and maintain your balance. Work hard, create options and enjoy the journey. That’s the Blue Train way.
As always, feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.