"Hi. I just got out of class. I did better on the exam than I thought. I'm on my way to the bookstore so I'll tell you more about it later. Bye, Mom."

You can hear students talking as they shuffle between classes. You assume they are talking to one another, but a close look reveals that they are talking into their cell phones. For all the good a cell phone can bring, some experts say this modern technology is contributing to a shift in campus culture. This shift has to do with parental behavior and how it is affecting students. The media has dubbed this conduct "helicopter parenting"; Grand Valley experts call it "snowplow parenting" -- parents who desperately try to clear the way for their kids.

Just six or seven years ago, college experts said most college students spoke to their parents once every few weeks. Today, many students talk to their parents several times a day, relaying every detail of their lives.

"In the last four or five years we have seen a significant change on campus," said Andy Beachnau, director of Housing, Residence Life and Health Services. "Students used to handle their own problems. Now, many students talk with their parents every day, and when there is a problem, we usually hear from the parents, not the students."

Beachnau has touched on what a Wall Street Journal article called "The Coddling Crisis". The article revealed how parents are so used to speaking and intervening for their children, they continue to do so even after their children have become adults, and college campuses are experiencing the fallout.

"Parents spend years deciding who their children will play with, which teachers they will have, and what activities they will be involved in. And that behavior is continuing," Beachnau said. "We call it "snowplow parenting": parents want to clear the way ahead of their children so they have a smooth road before them with no bumps, no problems."

Beachnau said many parents are involved with their child's  college education from the very start, noting that at least half of all college application forms are filled out by a parent instead of a student.

"We use the housing application to help us match roommates," he said, "and parents are answering questions about how they view their child."

Beachnau also said it's the parents who are asking the questions during student tours of the campus.

"We had one mom talking to her son on her cell phone during the entire tour, repeating everything the tour guide was saying," he said. "Apparently, her son couldn't make it."

Another example of how campus culture has changed happens on move-in day for freshmen. A few years ago, a parent or friend would just deposit a student at his residence hall. Not so anymore.

"It's a three-vehicle ordeal," Beachnau said. "The student is in the first car, Mom and Dad are following behind in a packed minivan, and then Grandma and Grandpa are bringing up the rear with the video camera."

Too often, these well-intending parents interfere with their child's education process, according to Bart Merkle, vice provost and dean of students. "Much of what students learn takes place outside of the classroom," Merkle said. "They learn to navigate and negotiate the university. In addition to grappling with ideas, they encounter people, policies and procedures."

But, Merkle said, they are dealing with a generation that wants what they want when they want it -- and parents are trying to make sure their kids get what they want. "That's not real life," he said.

Merkle, who has five children, said he knows all about the emotional connection between parent and child, but warned against the connection becoming irrational. "Higher education is about growth and development. That can't happen when Mom and Dad keep interceding," he said.

Merkle and Beachnau have plenty of examples of how students come to their offices for a meeting and before the student leaves, he or she dials a cell phone so administrators can talk with Mom or Dad. Both men said they can predict when parents will call: the beginning of a semester when students meet their roommates and right after grades come out.

"The No. 1 complaint we receive from parents has to do with a conflict between their child and a roommate," said Beachnau.

"Students used to handle these problems themselves. Now, parents get involved."

Beachnau said parents also call him about excessive noise, cleanliness and whether their child is eating a balanced meal. And if all of these issues aren't enough, Beachnau said parents, not students, call to dispute a grade.

An informal survey of a group of Grand Valley students brought out some humorous stories. These students decided to confront their parents.

A freshman from Chesaning said he had to sit his mom down for a talk. "My mom came to visit three weekends in a row when I first got here," he said. It's about a two-hour drive for her. I had to tell her to stop coming or I wasn't going to make any new friends. She complained to my dad about what I said."

Another freshman from Carson City said her dad, a computer programmer, was driving nearly two hours to come to campus every weekend. "He said he wanted to clear my computer of any viruses," she said, "but I think he was using that as an excuse to come visit."

A junior from Ferndale said he finally stopped telling his parents about any problems he was having so they would stop interfering.

Sandy Portko, professor of psychology, has taught at Grand Valley for 24 years and has also noticed the shift in campus culture. She said hovering parents are often shocked when it comes time for their children to be out on their own.

"Constant hovering can be crippling for a child," she said. "Parents make sure their kids get here and there, attend the right school, get the right grades, and get the right degree. They then expect their kids to be able to run their own lives and they are baffled as to why that isn't happening."

Portko said some parents believe that because they are paying the bill, they can dictate what courses their child will take. Yet, at the same time, she said, they want their child to be self-sufficient later in life.

"That is sending a mixed message," she said. She also said some students, who have experienced a constant amount of control by their parents, may develop a fear of going out into the world and a fear of the future.

Merkle said parents today have a tremendous problem letting go, and they don't realize that is what they are supposed to do. He pointed to another hallmark of snowplow parenting: accepting blame. Merkle said today's student accepts less and less responsibility; when a student misbehaves, is confronted and then disciplined, there is a good possibility that parents will challenge the action.

"There is an absolute blind sense that whatever my kid tells me is the absolute truth," Merkle said.

He remembers fighting the same urges of wanting to hover over his children when they were younger. He wrote an opinion piece, "Challenges of Parenting," for the Grand Rapids Press.

"Trying to be a good parent is likely the most difficult challenge that anyone can undertake. There is no training for the role although we can recall the behaviors of our own parents, observe the behaviors of others and read some of the voluminous literature on the subject written by people who may or may not really know anything about parenting.

Ultimately, each of us must blend our life experiences, our emotions and our reasoning abilities together to make parenting decisions that are in the best interests of our kids. Learning to assume responsibility for one's own behavior is essential for attaining true independence. The reality is that none of us can make our kids successful or happy -- only they can do that."

The following articles and book offer more information about this subject:
Millennials Go to College by William Strauss and Neil Howe

Page last modified March 17, 2014