As a child, Peter wasn't allowed to go to the mall or take karate lessons, for fear he'd get hurt. His mother micromanaged his education, selecting all classes, vetting all papers, and watching like a hawk to make sure homework got done on time. When Peter entered the University of Evansville, he did fine academically but struggled to make decisions, speak up in class, and form relationships with faculty members and classmates.
"It got to the point where because I had been so enclosed, I didn't know how to talk to people," says Peter, who requested that his last name not be published. "I was depressed. I had to learn how to break out of that shell."
College administrators say they're coping with a growing crop of Peters, freshmen suffering the aftereffects of having been raised by overinvolved parents. These moms and dads may see their tendency to hover and help at every step as loving and protective. But the urge to ensure a child's success by calling teachers to complain about assignments or grades, selecting all activities, and even completing tough homework assignments is apt to lead to failure once independence is required.
"These children don't have the confidence they need," says Robert Neuman, a retired associate dean for student academic development at Marquette University and author of the book Are You Really Ready For College? "They're immature. It's a real scourge."
The phenomenon can be explained in part by stressed-out working couples' safety concerns and lack of time; it's much more efficient to just act than to be a coach. It also has to do with getting into college. As admission to more selective schools has become increasingly competitive, parents have felt driven to overschedule and manage even very young children with an eye toward creating the perfect résumé.
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Technology has armed them with the tools to constantly monitor their children's progress and behavior by E-mail and text message, even GPS. And the burden of tuition in a struggling economy has made ensuring academic success even more critical.
"It's the perfect storm in terms of parenting," says Maureen Tillman, a psychotherapist whose College With Confidence counseling service prepares parents and students for the transition to college life. That competitive environment, she says, "has fueled the need for parents to connect and control in a new way."
To prep kids to thrive in college rather than struggle, parents should begin to break their overprotective habits long before it's time to think about the SAT. Tillman recommends that young teens devise their own schedules, figuring out how to fit in all their classes, activities, and chores; children need to learn early how to take charge of themselves and complete tasks that they don't want to do.
The key is to help kids solve problems rather than doing it for them. After Elizabeth Stoltz finished her sophomore year of high school, she told her parents, John and Kim, that she wanted to spend her summer organizing a walk to raise money for hungry children in Ethiopia. They advised her on setting up a nonprofit corporation and listed themselves as president and treasurer—but only because, by law, she needed people over 18 to fill those roles.
"We supported her, but left it up to her to make it work," John says. When it came time for Elizabeth to apply to college, he helped her set up comparison charts on the computer, but she figured out the pros and cons of each school. Both parents accompanied her on her college visits, but she asked the questions and handled the interviews alone. "They help us make decisions, but I never feel they're making choices for us," Elizabeth says of her parents, herself, and her brother.
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Parents, if those science fair projects and French reports have tended to bear your fingerprints, force yourself to stay clear the minute your child hits high school. "Know what courses your child is taking, find out what's on [the] reading list, and talk about a book at the dinner table," says Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a college admissions counseling company.