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Mommy, tell my professor he's not nice!

(Over)involved baby boomer parents - and cell phones - redefine adulthood.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published June 19, 2006


Parents of University of Florida students log on to their children's personal Gator-Link accounts to check grades, then call deans when they don't like what they see.

University of Central Florida parents call administrators to complain when their kids can't get into classes they want.

At Florida State University, parents of graduating seniors haggle with job recruiters. They want to make sure Junior gets a good salary and work schedule.

University administrators have a name for these baby boomer moms and dads who hover over their offspring's college lives.

"Helicopter parents," says Patrick Heaton, FSU's assistant dean of student affairs.

The worst of them - those who do unethical things, like write their kid's term papers - are branded "Black Hawks," a nod to the souped-up military helicopters.

"I also call them tether parents," says Heaton, who directs FSU's freshman orientation program. "It's like a leash. Students are afraid to make decisions about classes or anything without calling home."

Good luck finding a parent who admits being a helicopter, much less a Black Hawk. But across the nation, college administrators are struggling with what they say is a growing phenomenon, a product of the unique relationship between many boomer parents and their millennial-generation children.

Administrators say they know these parents mean well. But their frequent phone calls and unreasonable demands stunt student development and test the patience of college officials.

"Where parent behavior becomes a challenge for us is when they encourage dependence, and they become too involved because they are afraid their son or daughter will make a mistake," says Tom Miller, a University of South Florida dean of students.

"Our students are graduating," says Jeanna Mastrodicasa, associate dean of the UF honors college. "But they are not ready to go into the real world."

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Administrators noticed the hovering problem a few years ago, when the first members of the so-called millennial generation entered college.

Millennials are the children of baby boomers, born between the early 1980s and 2000. Sociologists and higher education officials say this generation is unlike any other, thanks to the child-rearing approach of their parents and the unprecedented influence of technology.

Many boomer parents carefully planned and fiercely protected their children, according to Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, by Neil Howe and William Strauss.

They saw their youngsters as "special," and they sheltered them. Parents outfitted their cars with Baby on Board stickers. They insisted their children wear bicycle helmets, knee pads and elbow guards. They scheduled children's every hour with organized extracurricular activities. They led the PTA and developed best-friend-like relationships with their children, says Mastrodicasa, co-author of a book on millennials.

Today, they keep in constant touch with their offspring via e-mail and cell phones. And when their children go off to college, parents stay just as involved.

Sometimes the attention is healthy and supportive. But in some cases, administrators say, their hovering is intrusive.

"The biggest change is technology," says Robin Leach, interim dean of students at FSU. "Where students in the past might just write home, now they're on the phone with their parents all day, every day. If something goes wrong or right, parents know about it very quickly."

An online survey in March by College Parents of America, an advocacy group formed 2½ years ago for the parents of college children, found that one out of three parents communicates with their child daily two to three times a day, typically via cell phone. More than half of the 839 parent respondents said their involvement with their children is "much more" than what they experienced with their own parents during their college years.

"When I went to college in the '70s, contact with my parents was standing at a pay phone on Sunday afternoon," says James Boyle, College Parents of America president. "And there was no expectation beyond that."

Freedom High School graduate Ashton Charles, 18, will attend UF in the fall. She says her mother is supportive but "not ridiculously overprotective."

They take yoga classes together. They watch Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. They use their cell phones to chat and send text messages.

Ashton figures their close relationship will continue even when she moves to Gainesville this fall.

"I'm sure I'll call her all the time when I'm here," Ashton says.

Pensacola resident Janet Summers was in Gainesville last month for her 18-year-old daughter Christine's freshman orientation. Summers' daughter Elizabeth already graduated from UF.

Summers says Elizabeth knew students whose parents called to wake them up for class or decided their class schedules. Some parents visited so often that others figured they had moved into town.

"It was so over the top, it helped me not to be that way," Summers says. "You just handicap them by being that way."

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Last month, hundreds of parents filled a ballroom on UF's campus, where two-day freshman orientation sessions are being held all summer.

They laughed when Mastrodicasa told them not to expect report cards in the mail. But she wasn't kidding.

"This is very different from high school," she said. "It is so tempting for you to do it all for them. But let them do the work. This is how they'll learn to be grownups."

Paige Crandall, associate dean of students, told parents: "I know you want to fight their battles for them. But you need to give them their space. Starting today."

A generation ago, a lot of parents didn't even attend orientation, Mastrodicasa said. They let their children attend on their own.

Today universities expect a full house of moms and dads and other guardians, and many colleges are refashioning their programs with parent-only talks that politely convey the message: "Back off, your kid's not a kid anymore."

"We talk about the value of letting go," USF's Miller said.

UF officials separate students from parents for much of the two-day orientation.

If not, "Mom will take notes and want to make decisions," Mastrodicasa says.

FSU students and parents also attend separate sessions, but that doesn't stop students from text messaging their parents for help before scheduling their first semester of classes, Heaton says.

At UCF, "we have parents who come and stay the whole first week of class, just to 'make sure they're okay,' " said spokeswoman Linda Gray, shaking her head. "They didn't use to do that."

In a recent online survey, "Helicopter Poll," by the career services provider Experience Inc., 38 percent of more than 400 college students admitted their parents participate in meetings with academic advisers.

One-quarter of the students polled think their parents are "overly involved" to the point of embarrassment or annoyance.

But Boyle, of College Parents of America, thinks concerns about helicopter parents are "overblown."

"It's better than the alternative, them not being involved at all," he says. "In every generation of parents, there are those that get too involved. I think it's a small percentage of parents who do things like try to personally intervene in a roommate dispute."

He says "smart schools" accept that parental involvement is higher with the millennial generation and respond by "catering to the parents."

"They are paying a large part of the tuition bill, and it's just good customer service," he says.

That is USF's approach, Miller said. USF, like an increasing number of universities, has a parents association. Other colleges are hiring parent "advocates."

This is the new reality, Miller said.

"When I was in college, had my parents actually called the dean, I would have been mortified. Now, it's very common."

Correspondent Stephanie Garry contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.