Parents come in all stripes. Some are hands-off with their college students: A brief "how are things going, dear?" is more than enough. Others are more interventionist: They want week-by-week (sometimes even day-by-day) progress reports on what their kid is doing at college. Still, others want to know almost every move: They've earned the name "helicopter parents" (for, like their namesakes, they hover closely overhead, trying to monitor all that goes on with the landscape below). But now there are "lawn-mower parents"—parents whose blades actually move across the ground as they try to mow down whatever stands in the way of their child's success.
One obvious target of some helicopter parents—and all lawn-mower parents—is the professor. It is he or she that can be causing trouble for the precious child, whether it's by giving a bad grade, not admitting the student to some closed course, not allowing an extension or incomplete, or, simply, not being as nice to the student as the parent would like. It's at that point that the trouble starts. That's when the parent takes the matter into his or her hands and E-mails or calls the professor directly. You might not have thought this would be so bad. But it is. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. No one does this. Actually, a few people do it, but it's a highly unusual and aberrant behavior. A call from a parent is sure to make the student stand out in a crowd—and not in a good way. Such unwelcome calls are sure to be discussed at the water cooler and at faculty cocktail parties.
2. It annoys the professor. Professors view calls and E-mail from parents as attempts to bully them. Profs are quite used to dealing with students, even angry students. To send in the parents gives the appearance of bringing in the heavy artillery to step up the attack, and no professor is happy to see this.
3. The student loses the pity factor. Most professors are relative softies when a student who is in trouble comes in. There is often a real pathos when you confront a student who is in genuine distress and is throwing him or herself on your mercy. Most professors respond to the authenticity of this sort of moment. But put mom and/or dad into the picture and the student has magically shifted from being a poor, benighted student into being a royal pain in the you-know-what.
4. The professor gets up his or her guard. When a student comes in with a problem, professors often will bend the rules a bit to help out. But once the parent shows up, the situation has gone official. The professor is aware that the parent could go next to the dean, the chancellor, or—in one case we know—even to the local congressman. So, when the parent arrives on the scene, out comes the official rule book and the professor starts following college policy to the letter of the law.
5. The parent could really go overboard. Some parents are hotheads. When they see their kids in some kind of trouble, they get incensed at the school, especially when they think of all that hard-earned money they paid for a college education seemingly going to waste.
It happened once … We know of one case in which a father, learning that his kid was still short credits for graduation when he supposed to graduate, actually called up an academic department (the one in which the student was majoring) and threatened to shoot someone. (Luckily the parent calmed down and called back to apologize, but not before the university police had been placed on alert.) After this incident everyone in the department started to understand why that kid always looked so beaten down.
6. The parent could really embarrass the child. Some parents will go to any lengths to make things OK for the student and humiliate him or her in the process. They can divulge personal information about this child to the professor—about how they've been irresponsible since age 7, how they're being treated for this psychological or health problem, have this or that learning disability, or just broke up with a significant other. Parents probably have more dirt on children than anyone else and it may not be so pretty when they spill all the secrets to the prof, whom the student has to see the next day in class.
7. Parents are coming in the middle of the game and might mess up the situation more. If the student has gotten into some problem with the rules and regulations of the college, the parent could easily be unfamiliar with the details. In an attempt to help out, they might make some claim or excuse that only makes things worse. No student would want Mom to be arguing that their paper didn't deserve a "C" after all the editing she did.
8. The intervention brands the student as a child. College professors generally tend to regard students as adults. But when the folks start to call, they reassess the situation. They start to see that student as lacking the kind of independence and maturity they normally expect of college students. And from then on in, they relate to them accordingly.
9. It exposes a family problem. Our experience with situations when parents directly intervene is that it is a direct product of a dysfunctional family. After encounters with parents, professors typically conclude, "Oh, now I know why [insert name of student] is so messed up. Just look at the parent."
10. It shows that the parent—and the student—don't really understand what college is. For a student to bring in a parent reeks of high school parent/teacher conferences. They just don't have that sort of thing at college.
Bonus Tip. If a student is truly incapacitated because of a major illness or family emergency, the practice is for the parent to contact the dean of students, who then notifies the student's professors.
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