The Parent Trap: Advisers, Parents, and Serving the Student

Gregory D. Carmichael, University of Louisville

Imagine the person you care about most in the world has been in a terrible car accident and is rushed to the hospital with a severe head injury. The surgery lasts for hours, and afterward you talk to the surgeon, whose bedside manner leaves something to be desired. You have many questions, but the surgeon insists you should be patient, wait for updates, and follow her recommendations. She asks that you trust her expertise and guidance and grows irritated as you persist, making you feel intrusive when you just want information and assurance that your loved one is receiving the best care possible.

How would you feel in this situation? The most important person in the world to you is in a critical situation, and you are the caretaker. You do not deny that the surgeon is the expert in this scenario, but you believe you should have some input as well. You feel that your opinions and concerns should be respected and that you should be informed immediately of your loved one’s progress.

Hopefully this hypothetical situation helps advisers understand a parent’s point of view. While a student starting college is not in a life-or-death situation, some similarities are clear. Parents are sending their students into an environment about which they know very little. It is a crucial time for new students—one in which their decisions can have a significant effect on their educational journeys. It is understandable for parents to be concerned and to take a vested interest in their students’ well being.

It is also understandable that advisers find that some parents fit the definition of “helicopter parent”—overly involved, overbearing, annoying, and sometimes rude. Often, advisers’ responses to them reflect this frustration, and defenses go up. This may result in pushback from parents and collectively lead to a failed parent-adviser relationship.

According to Marc Cutright (2008), “parents are not a monolithic crowd” (p. 40). This is important to remember as advisers interact with parents, because acting on stereotypes can damage the parent-adviser relationship. Cutright (2008) added, “Parents are rational and emotional, informed and misinformed, deeply interested and distressingly distant, seeking solutions to and being part of various problems” (p. 40). Cutright (2008) also pointed out that parents of incoming students have different levels of knowledge about the campus experience based upon their own experience. A parent might be overbearing because he or she has never been to college, but also might be overbearing because he or she is very familiar with campus life and wants to be sure that their student gets all the help the parent knows is available.

Of course, not all parents are alike and one should not infer that every encounter with parents is contentious. However as advisers increasingly interact with parents, it can help them to remember a few points about interpersonal relationships that have proven effective over the years. This paper frames the overall approach to adviser-parent interaction within the context of Stephen Covey’s groundbreaking book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Written in 1989, this book is revered for its good sense and no-fluff approach to self-improvement. Specifically, this paper will explore Covey’s Habits 4 and 5 (Covey, 1989) and will also refer to Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, in which many of his ideas dovetail nicely with Covey’s approach.

Covey’s Habit 5 states, “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood” (Covey, 1989, p. 237). Most of the time when an adviser encounters an issue with a parent, it is the parent who makes the initial contact regarding a problem. Immediately, the parent seeks to be understood. Many advisers are quick to anticipate the problem and provide a quick response; however, by remembering a few things about human nature, advisers can communicate key points and recommended solutions while also disarming parents in a way that makes the process more agreeable.

To begin to understand another person, “remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language” (Carnegie, 1981, p. 113). If advisers begin by using the parent’s name, an immediate connection is made and respect for the parent as an individual is shown. Carnegie recommends being a good listener and encouraging parents to talk about themselves and their problems in detail before interjecting (1981). Showing parents interest in what they have to say can immediately start the relationship in a positive direction.

To put this concept in perspective, think about a complaint or problem that is voiced to someone such as a customer service representative or spouse. The speaker likely feels better simply by having the opportunity to vent and knowing the other person is listening and interested in what the concern is. On the other hand, the speaker can become frustrated if the listener interrupts, rolls his or her eyes, or is quick to disagree.

Taking the time to be interested in another point of view is called empathetic listening. Not only does this skill disarm the other person (in this case, a parent), the act of listening will clarify the issue for the adviser and allow time to reflect on the variables involved. Perhaps the adviser did not have enough information or may have made inaccurate assumptions about the problem. Empathetic listening allows the adviser to put the issue(s) in proper context and, thus, deal more effectively with the concern, regardless of the final outcome.

Carnegie (1981) also stated one should be sympathetic to others’ ideas and desires. Many times parents simply care deeply for their students and are only advocating for what is in their best interests. Even if parents’ ideas are misguided or their actions extreme, advisers should appreciate (Carnegie, 1981) the fact that parents care enough to make contact and acknowledge the tremendous support they are giving to their children, which is certainly better than the alternative of no support at all.

When advisers take the time to listen, they can acquire more information and allow the parent to vent. When advisers are sympathetic to parents’ viewpoint and see them as well-intended caretakers rather than overbearing annoyances, they are more likely to treat parents with kindness and respect.

After the initial contact, the adviser should use recommended strategies to manage and resolve the issue or problem about which the parent called. If advisers use empathetic listening in the initial interaction, parents are much less likely to be belligerent than if the adviser had responded defensively. Applying Stephen Covey’s Habit 4—“Think Win-Win”—would mean allowing the parent to feel good about trusting the expertise of the adviser (1989, p. 207). This is actually “win-win-win” because a satisfactory resolution mollifies parents and alleviates their worries, allows the adviser to do his or her job without feeling marginalized, and provides students with the best advising possible.

As advisers interact with parents, they would be wise to follow Carnegie’s advice and not “criticize, condemn, or complain” (1981, p. 46) and only “call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly” (1981, p. 239). If parents are misinformed or wrong about an issue, or even if they simply disagree with the adviser’s approach, to chastise them will only make them defensive and less open to new ideas, perspectives, or information.

One effective way to indirectly point out a misinformed viewpoint or mistake is to address it in the third person. Instead of saying “you need to leave your son alone allow him to explore his interests,” it might be better to ask, “If parents allow their students to explore their interests, how might they benefit?” This makes the adviser’s point less accusatory and more hypothetical, thus allowing the parent to be open minded and admit they may be wrong without overtly admitting defeat. Carnegie (1981) mentioned two points directly related to this when he suggested “ask questions instead of giving direct orders” (p. 247) and “let the other person save face” (p. 251). Additionally he encouraged readers to “talk in terms of the other person’s interest” (p. 128) and “make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest” (p. 273). If advisers can avoid framing the issue as “I am right and you are wrong” and instead gently point out how certain actions might benefit the student (and therefore the parents), they will more likely agree with the proposal.

Too often, advisers rely on the protection of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to avoid talking to parents, which, while legally sound, may tend to disenfranchise the parent and make them feel even more disconnected from their student’s experience. In her article on helicopter parents, Lydia Lum (2006) revealed that parents may not even be aware of FERPA, or at least what FERPA means. Parents are used to the hands-on approach they had with their students’ education records in high school, so when they encounter the privacy laws associated with FERPA, the restrictions may come as a shock. Advisers should bear this in mind if explaining the details of FERPA to a parent.

Occasionally advisers will find that they have made a mistake or an inaccurate assumption. In this case, the parent has called and has good reason to be upset; the adviser can only concede the point and admit to error. This can be difficult, especially if the parent is belligerent. Carnegie (1981) recommended we “admit it quickly and emphatically” (p. 170) if we are wrong. If the situation is not clear about who is right and who is wrong, Carnegie (1981) said one should “talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person” (p. 244). Imagine a similar situation at a restaurant when something is not right. A patron is much more likely to be agreeable if the manager comes to the table and takes full responsibility for the situation—immediately and sincerely attempting to right the transgression—than if he or she were to become defensive and try to excuse bad food or poor service.

Covey (1989) reminded readers that a win for both parties is far better than a situation in which only one person gets his or her way. Even if an adviser “wins” the argument, the parent is left feeling negative and resentful, and this does nothing to help to loosen the tie between parent and student while advisers guide that student toward developing independence.

Aside from the interpersonal communication tools described above, advisers can also positively interact with overactive parents by sharing informative links and other resources with them. A copy of the advising syllabus would help parents to know what information their students have received. Being willing to stay in contact creates an air of openness that can prevent parents from becoming accusatory or overly persistent. While some parents truly are  too involved, many are simply anxious during the first few weeks of school. When they find out their students have access to all the tools they need to be successful, parents frequently step back. For those who persist, Karen Levin Coburn (2006) recommended offering education about student development and ways in which parents might best support that development without acting inappropriately.

Coburn (2006) also conceded that parents will continue to be actively involved in their students’ lives at college and will maintain regular contact with them. Before the proliferation of email, texting, and wireless phones, students communicated through letters and occasional, expensive long-distance phone calls. Nowadays communication has become far too easy and inexpensive to expect that parents will not attempt to connect with their students on a daily basis. In short, these parents are not going away.

Conclusion

The interpersonal techniques of Stephen Covey and Dale Carnegie do not guarantee a positive relationship with all parents. Sometimes parents seem intolerable, and advisers must endure unpleasant interaction with them. By disarming parents with empathetic listening, however, and then pursuing a win-win solution, many interactions with them can be improved and in the end, better serve the student, which is the entire point of advising.

The teachings of Covey do not only work in an advising setting. These approaches work with bosses, coworkers, friends, significant others, and family members. It is a philosophy of life that, with practice, can greatly enhance all interpersonal relationships.

References

Carnegie, D. (1981). How to Win Friends & Influence People. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Coburn, K. L. (2006). Organizing a ground crew for today’s helicopter parents. About Campus, 11(3), 9–16.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Free Press.

Cutright, M. (2008). From helicopter parent to valued partner: Shaping the parental relationship for student success. New Directions in Higher Education, 2008(144), 39–48.

Lum, L. (2006). Handling “helicopter parents.” Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 23(20), 40­–43.

About the Author(s)

Gregory D. Carmichael, University of Louisville

Gregory D. Carmichael is the senior program coordinator for Resources for Academic Achievement at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. He can be reached at gdcarm01@louisville.edu.

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