Warning! Helicopter Parents At 1,000 Feet!

Senior Brian Wilt leads a tour of the MIT campus including the Great Dome atop Building 10, a favorite site for "hacks" or pranks, including a fake fire truck and MIT police cruiser. JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR USN&WR
Jeffrey MacMillan for USN&WR
Do you hover low to the ground, micromanaging your college-bound kids from a helicopter pilot seat directly overhead?

Or, in contrast to so-called helicopter parents, do you assume your not-quite-yet-launched kids need so little oversight you become what parenting educator Michael Popkin calls a satellite parent? (Hint: Your kids complain you're so far in outer space not even the longest-distance phone plan reaches you.)

Then again, you might think your chosen distance is just right - even if your kids (not to mention their guidance counselors and prospective college admissions officers) wildly disagree. To identify an air zone both can share, take the following quiz.


Your high schooler and the school guidance counselor set a meeting to discuss college possibilities. Because such decisions affect family dynamics (not to mention finances), the school invites the parents, too. You:

A. Assume this means you're welcome to attend every meeting, then wonder why the guidance counselor isn't ecstatic when you announce where we're applying, even as you hand over a professionally assembled press kit for your kid (including resumé and DVD) and your handpicked list of superelite schools. Haven't you just saved everybody a lot of work?

B. Blow off the appointment. "It's your education, not mine. If you're mature enough to go to college, you're mature enough to make decisions without me."

C. R.S.V.P. and listen like a fly on the wall. Voice opinions in moderation: The focus should be your child, not you.

ANSWER: The royal "we're applying" (A) sets off an automatic "you're flying too low for comfort" warning signal. Your child's applying, not you. But being totally hands off (B) risks shutting the door at a time your child needs to know you're available to talk through possibilities. To find a balance (C), Judy Hingle, career connections specialist with the Fairfax County (Va.) public schools and former director of professional development at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, suggests imagining you're looking for a job, and your family is advising you. "A light bulb should go on," she says, about the difference between helping and meddling, as well as between letting your child have space and sending the message you're just not into his future.


Your high schooler has identified schools whose programs fit her interests and whose admissions profile is a good match. You look at her list and:

A. Hit the roof. "Don't tell me you're not good enough for an Ivy!" you fume. "These schools aren't good enough for you!"

B. Shrug. "All those school brochures look the same to me."

C. Are impressed by a list that shows thoughtful self-evaluation, with a range of schools based not on high status but on interests and academic record.

ANSWER: Helicopter parents may fly low to the ground, but their expectations (A) can be overly high, while satellites (B) distance themselves from the application process. Popkin, author most recently of Taming the Spirited Child, comments, "If you have a child who is self-motivated, that's one thing; but most kids need a certain amount" of parental involvement to explore evolving choices. A realistic parent (C) looks objectively at the student's academic record-including what it might look like through the lens of each school, suggests Holly Thompson, a Palo Alto (Calif.) secondary-school teacher and college parent who has also been a high school counselor and college admissions officer. "There's this myth if you do something to grab the attention of an admissions officer, it will help your child get in. It would probably be more useful to look at the statistics for that college and see" how it matches your child's record.


Time to visit campuses. Your role is to:

A. Plan the itinerary, cramming in as many schools as possible. At each one, inundate both student guide and admissions officer with questions you know your son won't think to ask, meanwhile furiously taking mental notes so you can spell out pluses and minuses.

B. Beg off the trip; it would mean missing your weekend golf game.

C. Offer to go, but don't insist if he prefers doing it himself. If you do go, allow your son to tell you what he thinks before sharing your thoughts.

ANSWER: You'll get no extra credit (A) for monopolizing the tour guide but will probably succeed in embarrassing your child. And before talking up or trashing a school too much, remind yourself: "Who's going to college in September?" Still, visiting campuses as a family can be an opportunity to bond and just have fun together. So rather than excuse yourself (B), why not add a golf match to the mix? However you arrange the trip (C), let your kids do the talking, says Hingle. "You're the listener, the sounding board, not the decider."