What I Did Right and Wrong in My First Experience with a Helicopter Parent

Many years ago, I taught my first-ever university course. It resulted in my first contact with what is now widely termed a helicopter parent (yes, we had a few even back then, though nothing like today). I am writing now to reflect publicly on what I think I did right and wrong in dealing with this parent and hope other teachers will respond by sharing their own handling strategies.

I had been given good advice in my teacher prep training, and I put it into practice the very first day of the course by making the following announcement:

I recognize that students sometimes experience crises that make it hard for them to do well in their schoolwork. If you are facing a problem in your life that is impairing your performance in this class, I promise you I will do everything I can to accommodate your needs if you tell me at the time. On the other hand, once the course is over and I have turned in the grades to the administration, I will not makes changes based on you telling me then about some problem you had during the course that you think affected your performance. To put it more simply: If you are responsible, I will be responsive, but not otherwise.

After that first lecture, a young woman asked to talk to me privately, so we met in my office. With her lip trembling, she told me the horrible news that her parents had recently been murdered. She said “Sometimes I burst into tears and can’t stop sobbing, so if I have to run out of class suddenly when you are lecturing, that’s why”. I knew of the details of the murders from the media, but that couldn’t give me or anyone else more than a surface understanding of what she was going through. Of course I told her to do what she needed to do to take care of herself, expressed my sympathy for her loss and offered to arrange mental health counselling for her if she wanted it. I also said she could come to me anytime she needed extra help with the classwork or just wanted to talk.

Remarkably given the enormous loss she has sustained, she was an excellent, composed student. She never needed extra help and achieved a nearly perfect grade (on the merits – tests were blind-coded so I wasn’t being particularly easy on her out of sympathy).

Other than a young man who was in a car accident a month later and missed some classes as a result, no other students came to me with any challenges that I had to accommodate as an instructor. However, after the course was over and the grades had been turned in, I found a note in my mailbox from a student in the course. He wrote that he remembered that I had specifically asked people not to come to me after the course with problems that had affected them during the term. Nonetheless, he wanted me to know that his dad had been very ill during the course. Although “he didn’t want to guilt trip me” (yeah, right), he asked me to raise his grade because he would have done better if not for the family health crisis.

I was irritated at his irresponsibility and also his continuing passivity (i.e., leaving a manipulative note in my mailbox instead of talking to me). I telephoned him at the number in his note and repeated what I had told him and everyone else the first day of the course. I said that I was sorry about his dad, but that I was not going to raise his grade post hoc. End of discussion, I naively thought.

A few days later I answered my home phone on the weekend. It was the student’s mother, saying that her husband had been sick that term and her son therefore was under stress and couldn’t I therefore raise his grade to better reflect his talents? I told her that the Dean’s Office had told instructors not to change grades after the course ended, which was a weaselly thing to say. Mind you it was technically true, but at the same time it wasn’t the fundamental reason why I didn’t want to change her son’s grade.

A few days later she called me at home again. She had spent the intervening days calling people in the Dean’s Office and some tower of jello therein told her that an exception to the grade-change policy could be made if I, as the instructor, really wanted it to be.

My cover blown, I had to be more direct and state that — Dean’s Office or no — I didn’t think it was appropriate to raise her son’s grade. My resistance was based partly on fairness: If any one student got a raised grade based on a note in my mail box and an aggressive parent after the course, then every other student in the course should been allowed the same benefit. But I also objected based on my promise to be responsive to the students on the condition that they were responsible.

I repeated to the mother what I had said to the students the first day of class and emphasized that her son said he had heard it. She responded “It’s not my son’s style to address problems proactively”. I said that her son was entitled to his style but that he had to accept the consequences of it.

She did not relent, asserting that I had too high expectations of how well college students could cope. “They’re just kids after all”, she remonstrated. Fate had given me the opportunity to lower the boom, so I did. I told her that one of the students in the course had recently lost her parents to a murderer, but had managed nonetheless to respond to the expectations I had set on the first day of the course and to be an excellent student during the course as well. I added that I thought the mother was underestimating the abilities of college age ‘kids’.

The mother audibly gasped at the mention of the murders and backed down. I wished her and her family the best and rang off.

I was a piddling graduate student teaching his first course, so I think I did okay in that situation even though I could have done much better. I got the biggest thing right: Not being bullied into raising the young man’s grade. But what would I have done without the concrete, irrefutable example for this parent that a 20-year old can reasonably be expected to act more responsibly than a 10-year old? I might have ultimately been browbeaten into folding.

I did several things wrong. First, I didn’t in the first conversation say clearly that it wasn’t administrative barriers that were preventing me from changing the grade, but my sense of fairness to all the students who weren’t engaging in the same behavior as this student and his mother. Second, I didn’t communicate to the mother as strongly as I could have that college education isn’t just about learning content. It’s also about learning to be a responsible adult in the world and her son would take away the wrong lessons if his grade were raised. If I could have found a way to make that point without offending her, it might have helped her understand that she shouldn’t make another round of calls to some other poor instructor the next time her son got a bad grade.

Last but not least, I regret that I didn’t have the moxie to call up the Dean and chew him out for not backing me up. Deans and their staff members should not be cowering before helicopter parents and throwing hard decisions onto graduate students who have never taught a course before. The Dean of my school and his minions should have had my back, but instead they abandoned the field.

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.