Losing Trust: From staff support to helicopter parenting

This post was written for the Student Affairs Collective blog series #SAEvolve. You can check it (and all kinds of other great stuff) out here: The Student Affairs Collective

We knew the parental tide was coming. And now it’s here.

My career in higher education began in 1999 when I took my first job as a residence life coordinator (RLC) at a small, private college in the Mid-West. At 24 years old, I supervised a staff of 11, six buildings housing 300+ students and allocated the budgets for each one. The majority of that money came from students and their parents. At the time, I didn’t bat an eye at the level of responsibility I was given. No one else did either. I was given an extraordinary amount of autonomy and much was expected of me. Looking back on it now, I am struck by two things. One, I am stunned that this level of responsibility was entrusted to someone so young and inexperienced. And two, I cannot believe that students and their parents shelled out so much money to the institution and then walked away to let the staff do our jobs. That’s how it was then.

In my three years as a RLC, I had one conversation with a parent. It was opening day, my first year. A father gently pulled me aside and introduced himself. His daughter was living on the first floor of the building. She was blind and deaf in one ear. He wanted to explain to me that she had an aide. He introduced me to his daughter and her aide and explained what her role was. The aide had a key to the room, helped the student dress, navigate the dining hall, attended classes with her, etc. etc. He also asked me what my staff and I were going to do to meet her needs. I am sure I stumbled through my answer and feebly assured him that we would do our best to be helpful. I never heard from or saw him again until move-out day.

My second position in higher education was as an Assistant Director of Student Activities. At that institution the VPSA successfully lobbied for a quadruple increase in the student activity fee; my programming staff and I were given 50% of that to establish campus traditions and late night programming. The increased monies allowed us to improve the weekend campus culture.The only parent contact I had was in the form of thank you notes.

I have worked as an academic advisor for almost four years. I get to work with compassionate, smart, hard-working students who aspire to be nurses. For the most part, I enjoy my work. I get to help people. However, there are times when my work is challenging because I have to interact with parents. I have had more parent interaction in the last four years than in all of my previous years combined. In that time I have been:

  • verbally abused by an angry parent (to the point where he hung up on me and then called a week later to apologize);
  • participated in countless meetings with incoming students and their parents;
  • had parents go over my head questioning my decisions (and really it wasn’t my decision, it was someone else’s & I relayed the message).

I actually like talking to parents because on many levels I can relate. In just eight short years my oldest son will go off to college and I will be where they are. I know how much I love my sons and how hard it will be when they leave our nest. On a very basic level, I get it. Parents love their children and want what is best for them. What I don’t get is the short-sighted nature of some of these parents. By fixing things for their children, they have taught them that they cannot be trusted and they have taught their children that campus professionals also cannot be trusted. The disrespect with which parents have spoken to me (and my colleagues) is astounding to me. Their willingness to go right for the jugular- calling the Dean, President, or Board of Trustees, all of which happened this year in our College- has been perpetuated by our profession’s obsession with appearances, our need for tuition dollars, and our willingness to cater to consumer satisfaction.

When hope and fear collide, one of the first and best current student “trends” books, was published in 1998. Parent centers and parent programming started cropping up in the early 2000s. Big questions, worthy dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks was published in 2000 as was Howe and Strauss’ seminal piece on millennials, Millennials rising. Millennials go to college was published eight years ago. We knew this onslaught of helicopter parenting and over involved decision-making was coming.

I knew that I would have to deal with parents eventually. But I underestimated the coming storm and now I find myself wondering how I got here? I recognize that for the most part, it is only about 20% of the population that makes 80% of the work. But, wow! Some of those interactions are exhausting.

I fear this post will make me sound old or worse, jaded. I don’t see myself as either of those. I do feel myself getting frustrated though because I am unprepared to deal with parents, especially angry ones, and there is no sign of this current flood abating anytime soon. While I recognize that my experience doesn’t represent everyone’s, twitter conversations and venting sessions with colleagues tell me one thing:

I am not alone.

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