No helicopter required: Parents finding positive ways to support college students

Published: Saturday, May 3 2014 5:15 p.m. MDT

Amanda Mills and Rachel Kissel, creative writing students at Southern Utah University, do research for writing projects at the Cedar City public library.

McKenzie Romero, Deseret News

CEDAR CITY — When Amanda Mills decided she wanted to go abroad this summer to study German, her mother told her she loved the idea.

But first, the English major from Syracuse needed to budget her expenses and figure out a way to pay for the trip herself.

"She told me, 'Go figure it out, do a financial consideration, and you can tell me what you come up with,'" said Mills, a junior honors student at Southern Utah University. "If you have to work for something yourself, it means infinitely more."

Mills called her mother often as she researched cost of living expenses for the places she would visit, compared prices on plane tickets, applied for any applicable scholarships she could find and got a summer job.

When she realized she could, in fact, fund the trip herself with little debt, she began to cry. Then she presented the idea to her parents.

The Millses have sought a balance between being supportive yet allowing their college-age children to be responsible for themselves, which they say keeps them away from "helicopter parenting" and has helped their older children develop independence.

Mills will spend three weeks in Vienna in May, followed by a summer working in Cedar City and a semester in Newfoundland, Canada, through the National Student Exchange. She is responsible for making her own plans and is paying for the trip herself.

"I thought, 'I need this experience,'" said Mills, who intends to compose either a short story or one-act play based on her trip. "I'm a creative writer, so I want to see new things. I want that experience of being lost. I want all of this so I can write what I know."

Cosette Mills, Amanda's mother, has stood by proudly as her youngest of four children and only daughter has planned the trip. She is quick to offer advice when Amanda calls home but is careful to leave the final decision in Amanda's hands.

"I didn't exactly give her a list. I just helped her think through the questions," Cosette Mills said. "I let it be her call. … It's been kind of a fun journey to watch her do the exploration and have the courage for this."

But staying involved in her children's lives while still allowing them to be independent hasn't always been easy, she said.

"I'm certainly parenting Amanda differently in college than I did my oldest son. There's no question I was in the 'helicopter parent' mode," Mills said. "I've found I can't own the choices they make, like if they're staying up until midnight or 1 or 2 a.m., or if they're working on their papers the last day or not planning the semester well. I had to get to a point where I consciously said, 'This is their choice.'"

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies reaffirmed the growing concern that over-parenting hinders development in adult children.

College students who experience inappropriate levels of parenting for their age, such as parents monitoring whom their children spend time with or contacting their instructors on their behalf, experience higher levels of depression and decreased satisfaction with life, according to the study.

All four of the Millses' children went away to college, something Cosette Mills was nervous about at first but appreciated later as she saw how they matured. The kids insisted their parents learn to text message to make it easy to stay in touch, and Cosette Mills made sure she knew which classes they were taking so she could ask how each one was going.

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