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reject call squareLetting go is one of the major challenges faced by parents when they drop their sons and daughters off at college for the first time.

A recent study by a group of Wagner College researchers suggests that letting go is a critical factor in how well freshmen adjust to their new independence.

The study said, “Parental behavior that encouraged students to do things for themselves predicts higher levels of student well-being.”

Which means, in plain English: Parents, for the sake of your children’s well-being, ground your helicopters. It’s time your students learn to make their own decisions and live with the results.

The helicopter reference, in case you didn’t recognize it, comes from the term “helicopter parent.” According to Parents magazine, that term “was first used in Dr. Haim Ginott’s 1969 book, ‘Parents & Teenagers,’ by teens who said their parents would hover over them like a helicopter.” By 1991, the term was so commonly used that it had made its way into the dictionary.

The Wagner College study wanted to find out if there was any real evidence that “autonomy support” did a better job than helicopter parenting at promoting students’ well-being. Wagner conducted three surveys of the 2014-15 first-year class: once at the beginning of the first semester, a second late in the first semester, and a third toward the end of the year. The surveys were meant to establish two things: the level of autonomy support vs. helicoptering by students’ parents, and the level of “flourishing” students experienced — and what connection could be determined between the two, if any.

(“Flourishing,” by the way, has a very specific meaning to researchers; it serves as a measure of emotional, social and psychological well-being.)

The good news, right from the beginning of the Wagner study, was that “most students are receiving input from parents that is supportive of the students’ autonomy, encouraging them to take independent action with respect to important decisions” — and that “autonomy support in the fall is positively associated with emotional well-being in the spring.”

More specifically, the report said, there was no evidence that helicopter parenting promoted students’ flourishing during the first semester — but there was clear evidence that students were more likely to say they felt happy, were optimistic about what they might contribute to society, and believed they were “good managers of responsibility” when they also viewed their parents as supporting their autonomy by encouraging them to make decisions for themselves and take responsibility for their choices.

On the flip side, students who reported higher levels of helicopter parenting toward the end of their first year of college had poorer emotional and psychological well-being.

“From surveys,” the researchers reported, “we cannot determine whether helicopter parenting causes harm to students who would otherwise succeed, or whether parents hover when students are struggling. But surveys do allow prediction, and helicopter parenting at the end of a full year of college is a bad sign of student ability to adjust.”

Two variations were noted within the 2014-15 freshman class, according to the study. First: During the first semester, men said that their parents were helicoptering less than did women.

Second: “Helicopter parenting was predicted by geographic region.” The farther away a student’s parents were, the less likely the student was to report helicoptering.


Funding for the Bringing Theory to Practice Project at Wagner College, which conducted the study upon which this essay is based, was provided by BTTOP.org, a partnership between the S. Engelhard Center and the Association of American Colleges & Universities. Investigators on the project were Alexa Dietrich, Amy Eshleman, Steve Jenkins, Anne Love, Lily McNair, Patricia Tooker and Ruta Shah-Gordon.

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