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Colleges discourage 'helicopter parents'

Parents are separated from their children during

Parents are separated from their children during a orientation at the New York Institute of Technology. (July 20, 2011) Credit: J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Mom, Dad: Take a step way back.

That's what colleges and universities across Long Island are telling parents who are readying their children for freshman year -- a student cohort more than 25,000 strong including those headed to Nassau and Suffolk community colleges.

Parents of students planning to attend New York Institute of Technology are advised during daylong orientation sessions to practice "perimeter parenting," meaning they should step to the sidelines and encourage their kids to solve their own problems.

Scott DeGroat, from Westtown in upstate Orange County, was one of 50 people attending a recent session at the school's Old Westbury campus. He said he and his wife fall somewhere in between "helicopter" and "perimeter" parents -- they try not to hover too much.

"We help them get started," DeGroat said of his two children, but "they're the captains" of their futures.

NYIT welcomes his attitude. The university wants parents to be informed about their child's opportunities at school but not take responsibility for their work.

"If students don't go through this process in a safe environment . . . you may see that they have difficulty becoming truly functional adults," said Alice Heron-Burke, NYIT's senior director of counseling and wellness and one of the leaders of its orientation.

Parenting expert Michele Borba, author of "The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries," said too much help can cripple a student.

Borba, who has written 23 books on the topic, said today's college-age youths are smart "but ill-prepared to handle life solo," and have poor coping skills as compared with the previous generation. She said students whose parents fix even their smallest problems have a tough time making the transition to adulthood.

Heather Robertson, director of student orientation and family programs at Stony Brook University, wants parents to help students become more resilient.

If a student takes issue with a class or a roommate and calls mom and dad to fix the problem, the university wants parents to first ask their child if he or she has reached out to an academic adviser or residence hall assistant, she said.

"We're not saying, 'Don't help them,' " Robertson said. "We're saying, 'Help them help themselves.' "

Bob Houlihan, vice president for student affairs at Molloy College, said he's had parents try to join their child at registration, change their kid's course schedule and call the school's athletic director to argue for more playing time.

Molloy urges parents to back off if they become too involved, he said, and most comply. "When we explain to them exactly why, they agree and understand because it's logical," he said. "Everybody wants what is best for the students."

But at least one Long Island school welcomes hovering.

Ronnie Lee MacDonald, vice president of enrollment and student services at Dowling College, said her school embraces "helicopter parents." Dowling encourages them to reach out by email and attend forums held especially to answer their questions.

Involved parents help more than they hurt, she said, and pointed to last year's valedictorian, whose parents were engaged in every important decision that the student made.

"They helped with registration and got to know some of the faculty members," she said.

Parents who already have a child in college tend to fare better, school representatives said. Pat Macchio of Wantagh came to NYIT's orientation to prepare herself and her son, Andrew, for school. Another son already graduated from the program.

"I'm hoping he can join some clubs or activities," she said of her 18-year-old. "He needs to take advantage of career services to help him get into his career a little faster."

Andrew Macchio said he's excited about this next chapter of his life, though he'll still turn to his parents for help on occasion, especially with the paperwork he's expected to fill out for school.

When will he do it on his own?

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe next year."

With Ali Eaves

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