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U. of Tennessee at Martin Encourages Helicopter Parents to Hover

Some parents want to continue parenting even after their kids go to college. Helicopter parents, as they are called, try to remain as involved as possible in the lives of their collegiate offspring, despite admonitions against coddling them into a state of arrested development.

Many colleges politely tolerate doting parents. The University of Tennessee at Martin welcomes them.

The university has given parents access to a website where they can see what courses their children have signed up for and whether they have been missing classes.

The site, called MyUTMartinParent Portal, recently reported by eCampus News, also shows parents their students’ midterm and final grades. It alerts parents to any warnings that professors have issued about the behavior or academic performance of their child, as well as any financial-aid paperwork that might be missing.

Brandy Cartmell, the interim executive director for student engagement and registrar at Martin, describes the site as a “landing pad” for helicopter parents. And she doesn’t mean that in a bad way.

“The student still has to become autonomous,” she told The Chronicle, “but students don’t just graduate high school and become mature, thinking adults.”

Nor do parents instantly transform into disinterested empty-nesters. Many cling. The dynamics of that transitional phase have been fodder for hand-wringing over the fate of the current generation of “emerging adults.” Helicopter parents are often caricatured as cyberstalkers who troll campus housing officials—typological complements to the dependent, entitled “Millenials” who roam today’s college campuses, scaling indoor climbing walls and taking selfies.

To those who give credence to those archetypes, the MyUTMartinParent Portal would seem like an enabler. But researchers have added nuance to the concept of helicopter parenting. Recent studies suggest that students whose parents remain attentive often have an easier time finding their footing at college.

Ms. Cartmell comes from the researcher camp. As a student-affairs administrator, she jokes about helicopter parenting with her colleagues; but as a doctoral candidate in education on the university’s Chattanooga campus, she uses phrases like “separation and individuation” and “interactionalist theory” to discuss the fine points of the phenomenon. (MyUTMartinParent is not just an administrative tool; it is also the basis of her dissertation.)

The university has been using the tool since the fall of 2012. Students waive their privacy rights for their parents to get into the system, although parents who claim a student as a financial dependent can compel the university to grant them access. More than 90 percent of freshmen typically opt in, according to the registrar.

For first-generation students, the hazards of helicopter parenting pale in comparison to the hazards of having parents who are totally disengaged, says Ms. Cartmell. At the Martin campus, 42 percent of freshmen have parents who did not go to college.

Those students are particularly at risk, and their parents “don’t know how to help their student in any way,” she says. “The portal benefits the first-generation parent by telling them what questions they should be asking.”

Meanwhile, she hopes the portal will redirect the energy of parents who overestimate their understanding of what kind of attention their offspring needs.

“They get involved in places where they don’t belong because they don’t know where they should be getting involved,” says Ms. Cartmell. “So we give them the landing pad so they know how to help us help their students.”

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