Permission To Fly?: Dealing With “Helicopter Parents”

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What’s a “helicopter parent”? They’re the ones who are still hovering over their adult son or daughter when they leave home for university: the mother who emails you weekly asking for a progress update, the father who questions the way an essay has been marked. What cover do you have under UK law and HE policy—and is there ever a situation where you should be speaking with a student’s parent?

Start by drawing the line.

Most lecturers expect some parents to attend Open Days, and a few will be present at introductory events at the start of the year. Open Days are an acceptable time to answer parents’ questions: their son or daughter is not yet a student, so you can respond freely.

But just because you can doesn't mean you always should. If a parent is asking all the questions, keep pulling the discussion to the student by asking him or her what they think, what interests them about the course, or what their expectations are. Many universities now run parallel sessions just for parents to avoid exactly this situation. These are the perfect time to distribute university guidelines about parent-lecturer contact.

What do the rules say?

For students who are under the age of 18, parents may need to provide permissions and sign contracts. They also have more rights regarding information about their child.

After age 18, the student is legally an adult. Lecturers can only provide information about a specific student to anyone—parent or otherwise—with a signed permission form from the student. And we must make sure that students really have given permission, as some parents will bully their offspring into putting such a form on file.

Parents often argue that because they are paying their son or daughter’s fees or living costs, this gives them a right to information or even involvement. It does not: it is the student, not the parent, who has a contract with the university. Parents may need to be gently reminded that if they feel their son or daughter is not living up to their end of a bargain they have struck regarding parents paying and the student studying, it is the student they must speak with.

Are there exceptions to the rule?

Under the Data Protection Act, students can allow a third party, such as a parent, to be informed about their academic progress. As noted above, this permission must be given in writing, and students can rescind this permission. Staff who provide information beyond this limit can be subject to legal problems—if you are under pressure, talk to your line manager for help in responding.

Universities do have a ‘Duty of Care’ to students. If lecturers believe a student is at significant risk—for example, due to mental or physical ill health—parents should not be called directly. Instead, lecturers should speak to the student and attempt to connect them to appropriate resources, on or off campus. This is a good time to ask for written permission to speak with parents.

If risk appears to be immanent (if a student is threatening to harm themselves or others, for instance) contact health or law enforcement authorities, which can then contact parents. Don't try to negotiate such situations in isolation, call the campus health or security offices for advice and assistance.

The student is the key.

As long as students can’t break the habit of consulting their parents on every decision, the problem will remain. The mobile phone and email play key roles in the “helicopter parent” phenomenon. Talk to students about how to manage parental expectations for contact. There is an amount that is probably “too much” (daily) and an amount that is probably “not enough.” When parents have not heard from their child for weeks or months, they may start calling the university or individual lecturers.

No response or rude refusals will naturally upset parents. Staff and universities should respond by providing general information about courses, rules, accommodation, and so on, not information specific to the student. Ensure that both parents and students understand the rules about confidentiality and the university’s expectations that they will be largely self-reliant as they begin their adult lives. 

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