Helicopter parents challenge our assumptions about rank and class

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I loved Ryan’s post about helicopter parents because, like many changes generation Y brings to the workplace, helicopter parents force me to see how much the dynamics of the workplace have changed and how what’s appropriate at work today is different than what was appropriate only two or three years ago.

The hardest parts about writing about generation Y is seeing all the benefits they have that I didn’t have. As a member of generation X, I graduated from college into such a bad market that we invented the word McJob. Now we never use that word because there is no reason for a young person to take a bad job –the job market for young people is better than it has ever been, maybe in the history of jobs.

This means that young people are in a position to negotiate for non-salaried benefits that would have been unthinkable to young people in other generations — extra vacation, tuition reimbursements, telecommuting. In earlier generations, if young people negotiated hard in entry level jobs, they would have been shown the door. Today, companies are so desperate to keep top young talent that almost anything is open for negotiation.

I know from my own experience that senior executives regularly use lawyers to negotiate their pay packages because non-salary perks are so difficult to negotiate. On top of that, if you use a lawyer to negotiate then you avoid starting out your job in a contentious way with your future co-workers. Today young people need this same benefit because they also are negotiating for a wide range of non-salary perks.

Young people can’t afford lawyers, and would, under other circumstances have to have a contentious negotiation over non-salary perks before starting work. But with parents providing a negotiating agent for the lower ranks, the workplace is more fair, less rankist, and that should make everyone happy.

Additionally, the fact that parents are meddling in interviews also strikes me as not so bad. (And, by the way, I am not alone — many companies, and colleges, allow this to go on without holding it against the candidate.)

The very rich, very well connected people have been shepherding their kids through their first jobs forever. The dad calls his friend and his friend calls a friend and one friend does the coaching and the other friend does the hiring and then it starts all over again. With a golf game or two thrown in.

The not-as-very-rich (but still rich) hire branding consultants who specialize in recent grads, and the consultants do practice interviews for five or ten hours at $200 an hour.

Helicopter parents simply bring these rich-kid practices out into the open and into the ranks of the middle class. Seems like a great turn of events to me.

When rich kids get benefits from their parents stepping in and getting things for them in adult life, we never complain about independence. We complain about other things, like unfair benefits of being rich. But, for example, when Donald Trump hired his daughter Ivanka Trump (without even making her attempt an interview!) I don’t remember uproar over independence.

So maybe a closer look at the hoop-la over helicopter parents reveals simmering rankism and classism issues underneath.

31 replies
  1. Gregory Leiby
    Gregory Leiby says:

    Terms such as "very rich, very well connected people" and "rich kids" shows a class bias. Do you really think you and I would be taken seriously flitting around, trying to make sure our children have the same opportunity for an entry level job that a Rockefeller or Kennedy child has?

    I do not think the negative posters have an issue with parents availing their contacts, network, and life-lessons to their children.

    My chief concern when I read about "helicopter parents" is the maturity of the children. Are they able to think critically? Do they have decision-making skills? Are they able to stand on their own when necessary?

    Going back to the "very rich," how positively do we think of Trust Fund Babies? Ask your readers. I would bet most would consider them to be spoiled, irresponsible elitist. Is that the equality we want for our kids?

  2. Gregory Leiby
    Gregory Leiby says:

    Addendum to my posts: In thinking about all of this, perhaps a post on the trend of agency and representation in negotiating employment (at much lower levels than corporate officers), would be better received if the role of "helicopter parents" was left out.

  3. DAR
    DAR says:

    Sorry, I can’t agree with you here.

    If a prospective applicant’s mommy or daddy started calling me to talk about the interview, that would reflect very badly on them to me. They’re not kids anymore, and not in college either. When you join the working world you become an adult, and it’s time to have mom & dad stop leading you by the hand.

    By all means, seek out advice from mom & dad behind the scenes. But they need to stand on their own 2 feet.

    Just my $0.02.

  4. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    I appreciate your putting a positive spin on a negative issue (overinvolved parent as agent/coach), but I have to disagree with the idea that it’s the middle-class method of “rich-dad” talent marketing. What makes me question this idea is that it assumes the parent and child have a very different relationship than is more often the case. That is, the parent isn’t a raving neurotic with unacknowledged emotional issues and the child isn’t a master at managing the parent to get stuff done.

    It seems to me that truly smart, independent kids don’t really listen to their parents. They might understand that there is some benefit to letting their parents drone on about how they got and kept their jobs (it obviously makes the parent feel good), but it doesn’t take very long for that to get old. These kids are way more interested in forging ahead and figuring things out for themselves, not sitting through yet another slightly different recounting of the same old crap they’ve been subjected to for 18+ years.

    * * * * * *
    Jenny, I love the phrase “rich dad talent marketing”. Great.

    Re truly smart kids dont’ ask parents.

    I was interviewing a twenty-three-year-old who had just received a huge buyout offer for his startup. And you know what he did? He ran his decision by his parents to see if they thought it was good. And he is truly smart and independent. I mean, he started his own company.

    I think that truly smart means that you know you can’t get stuff done in this world without getting help from other people. No one can.


  5. christin
    christin says:

    Yeah I don’t understand this either. I have to agree with some of the naysayers in that if I were a recruiter (i’m not, but I am a 20-something) I would be seriously disturbed by a candidates’ mom or dad calling me. By the same token, if my mother called a company I had just interviewed with to negotiate for me, I would feel like a big baby who couldn’t do my own heavy-hitting. And I also agree with that person above who says – how does that reflect on the kids? Doesn’t it show inability to confront or stand up on their own? Lack of decision-making intuition? I’d never want that.

    I do agree that sometimes it’s nice to have an insider pinch-hitting for you – a friend at the company, a person in your life who knows someone who knows someone…whether that’s a parent or otherwise doesn’t make a difference to me, it’s the same idea – someone promoting you and negotiating in addition to you. Not instead of.

    Maybe I’m missing a major point here but I really don’t get it.

    * * * * * * *

    The interesting thing about this comment is that you are actually questionning the methods of involvement — as in, there are a lot of ways a parent could have direct involvement and some ways are probably more effective for everyone than others. But look, this is the first or second year of this happening on a wide scale. So we are investigating, looking around, testing, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. That seems fair. There are a lot of things a parent can do in this situation of direct involvement –t here’s not one model.


  6. Ralph Bucher
    Ralph Bucher says:

    Its a good thing that parents are part of the Network needed to land interviews. However, it would be better if parents did not negotiate directly with potential employers on behalf of children. They should just provide advice and coaching. At some point Hiring Managers will rightfully judge those who negotiate for themselves as better job candidates than those who can’t manage on their own.

    * * * * * * *
    You bring up a  great point, Ralph – that this is all market driven. Of course, if the kids didn’t get better deals from the company with their parents involved, then the kids probably wouldn’t keep doing it. If companies held parental involvement against the kids, then not even the parents would want to keep doing it.

    So, it says a lot that parents keep doing it and kids keep letting them. I don’t think they are getting penalized.


  7. Jason
    Jason says:

    As a twentysomething, and a recent college grad, I can think of a few friends & acquaintances that would let their parents negotiate their salaries/perks for them. To be honest, I wouldn’t hire a single one of them, though I know that is an extremely small sample size.

    Maybe my problem is that I can’t understand how a candidate can seem attractive to a company if their parents are doing the negotiating. I don’t want to hire or work with somebody who doesn’t WANT to do taht themselves. Part of me wonders what else they’re going to want spoon-fed to them, and I’m not impressed by the lack of willingness to learn by doing. Granted, it may not be a perfect representation of how assertive they will be on the job, but I just think that’s a weak first impression to make.

  8. Jason
    Jason says:

    Also, to follow up, the real question here is if there is a benefit. Logically, I can only see how employers would be turned off by prospective employees who have their parents act on their behalf.

    The problem is that all the articles I’ve seen regarding “helicopter parents” talk about how companies X and Y are trying to deal with the phenomenon. It doesn’t tell us about all the hiring managers who trashed someone’s resume when their mommy called; I’m guessing there are a lot that do, but nobody writes articles about them for whatever reason.

  9. Michele Martin
    Michele Martin says:

    I have to agree with the other writers here. As a former HR manager, the first time someone’s mommy or daddy contacted me about Junior’s job offer there’d be a good possibility of me rescinding it.

    But beyond that, to your point that this concern about helicopter parents may just be a sign of classism–that doesn’t make me feel any better. There are a ton of well-deserving, very competent young people whose parents either can’t or won’t negotiate for them in this way. In many cases, these people already have several strikes against them. Why should one more injustice be added to the pile?

  10. Mary
    Mary says:

    Despite the fact that there is a bit of media hoop-la over the helicopter parents contacting employers, my guess is this is far from a wide-spread phenomena. Given the quotes in the articles, it seems that a handful of employers, recruiters and HR people have been approached by a few parents. Given that there about 20 million people in their twenties–this doesn’t even make a ripple on how people are truly negotiating to get job benefits etc. It seems more of a flashpoint to get tongues wagging.

    A friend of mine recently told me about a woman in her late 30s, early 40s who brought her mother to a job interview. And wouldn’t you know it, the job was for a Psychology Professorship. My friend didn’t want to hire the woman–not just because of bringing Mom to the interview. But the provost was all for hiring her–thought bringing Mom was charming. But, no surprise, the provost (in her 50s) lives with her Mom!

  11. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Hmm…I don’t recall saying that smart kids don’t ask their parents. I said they tend not to listen to their parents. Remember, we’re talking about helicopter parents here — people who “coach” their kids more out of emotional disturbance than out of healthy concern for their kids.

    Regarding the guy with the start-up buyout offer: This isn’t really an applicable example since it seems the parents here are not the hovering type which you focus on in this article. But still, whatever his decision on the offer, did he do what he did simply because Mom & Dad said he should? If he is as smart as he appeared to you, somehow I doubt it.

    Would you still consider him a smart kid if he said his parents accompanied him to the buyout negotiation with his lawyers or called the buyer repeatedly to make sure they were fair to their little boy? Somehow I doubt it.

  12. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    I guess a lot of Generation Y kids have much different parents than mine! I’m a Gen X’er and my parents are both in their 60’s and retired. (And yes, Penelope, I remember the days of the McJobs, although I try not to.) My dad was a self-employed carpenter and my mom didn’t work at all – I am the only one in my family to go to college. My parents have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what I am talking about when I talk about life in the corporate cube farm.

    Not to diss them, but I definitely try not to listen to them on work-related issues. They are extremely risk-averse, and if anything encourage me to be a poor negotiator and sell myself too cheaply, not job-hop into something better, etc. – because they think the worst thing you can do is appear “too big for your britches.” I think that is a sure way to make sure you are consistently underpaid, but they come from a generation that thinks losing a job is the worst thing that can happen to you, and that changing jobs is a permanent stain on a resume.

    So Generation Y kids have their parents doing all this helicopter stuff? I was totally on my own from the time I was 18 and can’t imagine it.

  13. Cara
    Cara says:

    My opinions and experience are similar to Pirate Jo’s. My parents are immigrants and also very risk-averse. They tried to hover over me all through my mid-20s even though I moved out when I was 19. They dictated my college major (“Study something practical and forget about studying what you like. College is to train you to make money, not for having fun.”) They even tried to tell me NOT to invest in a 401k because “the stock market is dangerous.” I ignored pretty much all of their advice after I got my bachelors, but that didn’t stop them from trying to hover. When I started practicing law, my Dad had a bad habit of visiting me without warning, walking right past the receptionist and dropping into my office. How embarrassing (and yes, I put a stop to it). I personally think that all this hovering stems from the insecurities of the parents rather than caing about the well-being of the kids. Even birds are smart enough to kick their young out of the nest.

  14. Jennifer Zajac
    Jennifer Zajac says:

    Got two little ones now, and this debate has me wondering how much this Chopper will fly in to assist with their career decisions. I will certainly introduce my kids to people whom I think will help them out and I hope that they turn to me for career advice. But if they expect/demand me to do every aspect of their career search, I think that I might view that as a failure on my part. My goal: Raise people who are confident enough in their abilities to do the work that’s needed to get ahead in this world and smart enough to know when to seek advice from other wise souls.

  15. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    The superstar college quarterback has a coach to negotiate for him because he is a very exclusive hot property and the deal involves amounts which are obviously way beyond the fresh grad’s experience.

    In the case of more modest jobs, I believe that there would be a lot less tolerance of the stage mom. If she didn’t appear until the offer was on the table it might be more awkward for the company to rescind it than to deal with her.

    But a lot will depend on her manner as well. If she is pushy and there is decent competiton for her little darling the job will go to someone else.

    Also, it might make some sense for parents to get up front in the career choices of fresh grads but not beyond the early stages.

    The rich dads might have negotiated on behalf of their little boys but as you indicated with friends and the friends of friends. Most likely it isn’t often done with strangers who have no sympathy for the family.

  16. Neil Fitzgerald
    Neil Fitzgerald says:

    I can’t agree with you (or Ryan) either. An employee is never going to achieve the full respect of their seniors if they have to get help from their parents. Learning to negotiate is a valuable lesson to learn and required in every job. If it is acceptable to let your parents do that for you, then why don’t they do other parts of the job such as report writing and mentoring? It’s a sign of bad parenting too. You have to let the kids fend for themselves.

    Negotiating is all about dealing with people. If you can’t do that, then you are lacking one of the most important skills needed in the workplace.

  17. MCW
    MCW says:

    Reading the comments on this post and Ryan’s earlier post — it seems like there was a lot of miscommunication based simply on the use of the “helicopter parents” term.

    That term has been used in recent articles in a very derogatory sense of “parents who fight their grown kids’ battles.” Whereas Ryan was talking about parents being career advisors to their grown kids. That’s not helicopter parenting, IMO. That’s just common sense. Assuming your parents have a clue about the realities of your chosen career.

    I do think you’re on to something with the observation that helicopter parents / rich parents helping their kids, irritates many Americans. IMO not because of the class connotation specifically, but because it violates some of our most deeply held beliefs about how America works.

    Americans dearly love our mythologies around rugged individualism (nation of frontiersmen etc) and around meritocracy (work hard, earn success etc.). IMO Americans tolerate the huge disparities of wealth because of our belief that the US is fundamentally a meritocracy. (There’s been some interesting articles in recent years about whether this belief is supported by the current factual evidence.)

    So when we Americans see someone like Trump’s kids, or Paris Hilton, or even the current guy in the White House — rich/privileged people who got where they are in life 99% based on who their parents are and only 1% based on their own efforts — it aggravates us. We want to see those people prove that they deserve that life, by virtue of their own merits — or, we want to see them get taken down a peg.

    Americans really want to belief that our society is fair, that (most) people get what they earn/deserve in life, and that spoiled over-privileged brats will eventually get their comeuppance.

    So, talking about getting significant career help/advice from Mom and Dad — while that seems like imminently logical, common sense advice — it does conflict with some of our popular memes in this country.

    Plus, of course, stories about how the current generation is going to hell in a handbasket — those types of stories have been popular since the beginning of time. Damn worthless kids and their helicopter parents. It’s the end of civilization. ;-)

  18. Randy Moser
    Randy Moser says:

    I agree with Michele's post above. I've never had direct experience with someone who negotiated his or her salary through a parent. This seems to me to me a myth perpetuated by a media that wants to scapegoat today's young people as pampered brats and I think it's important that Gen Xers refuse the bait.

    There's no denying that the workforce is going to change in the next five or 10 years. The optimistic prophecy made in the 1970s – €“ that Gen Xers would have great job opportunities as Boomers left the scene – €“ is finally going to happen, though I think these benefits are going to go to mostly Millennials.

    We have to put on our big boy (and girl) pants and cheer these changes. For the first time since the late 1970s, college kids will be making enough money to actually pay back student loans. Employers won't feel that they hold all the cards and might actually even start calling back every applicant again.

    It seems to me that we will have the most productive workforce since the 1950s. Generation Y kids are bright, creative, and confident. Let's not forget that test scores have been steadily going up for years. (http://home.earthlink.net/~mmales/genx.htm)

    And Generation X freelancers – €“ who have proven themselves through the quality of their work – €“ will return to jobs with much more real-world experience than Boomer middle managers had at the same age. The only irony is that we'll still have to deal with overbearing Boomers as they meddle with their kids' lives at the work place.

    Randy Moser

  19. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    ("Study something practical and forget about studying what you like. College is to train you to make money, not for having fun.")

    Cara, my parents’ attitude toward college was the exactly same as the one your parents had. And I am curious how you feel about that now. I gather you went to college “vocationally” – to major in something where you could get a job, make decent money, and gain financial independence. I did the same thing – majored in something I thought was painfully boring but where I knew I’d never have to worry about money or job security. I got exactly what I wanted – It’s been ages since I had to worry about money or job security, but work has always been dull.

    For me, I think it does suck to go to work and be bored out of my mind every day. But it would also suck to worry about money all the time. One of my college friends majored in English – fun, right? You get to read all those good books! Then switched her major to another hobby – photography – and came out of college with lots of student loans and never made more than $17k a year. I can’t say that I would enjoy life clipping coupons either.

    I’ve spent the past years at my boring job making all the money I can – I have been debt free for years and piling up savings like crazy. I’ll have my condo paid off soon. The price I paid has been watching the clock all day, but I am in a very comfortable position financially now. And guess what? I’m still young and am now going back to school to switch into a career that I think will be interesting! I can’t say that I regret spending my 20’s and early 30’s working just to make money. The sooner you do it, the less you have to mess with it later in life.

  20. Cara
    Cara says:

    Pirate Jo: are you my twin? I’ve been doing exactly the same thing. Honestly, I don’t have any regrets going into the boring job, despite all the sacrifices in peace of mind and happiness at the time. It’s made me stronger, and I learned a lot about myself from the experience. My attitude is not to look back and instead make the best of the situation I’m in. Blame, regrets, etc. is such a waste of energy and doesn’t get me any closer to my dreams for the present and future. Besides, money is such a wonderful, versatile tool that it would be foolish not to appreciate it and take extremely good care of it (through careful budgeting, saving, investing, etc.). Yeah, my 20’s and my 30’s so far have had some rough patches, but as I approach 40 with my ideals still intact and a financial cushion, I have to say that it’s was definitely worth it. The peace of mind is priceless. Good luck with your future plans!

  21. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I love Cara’s earlier comment: “I personally think that all this hovering stems from the insecurities of the parents rather than caring about the well-being of the kids. Even birds are smart enough to kick their young out of the nest…”

    To me, this exactly sums up the difference between parents who truly want to help their offspring help themselves (perhaps by opening up their network, offering advice behind the scenes, etc. etc.) and hovering helicopter parents (who annoy the h*ck out of me!! and that’s more to do with how their behaviour smacks of myopic desperation than any reference to class or money).

    Great discussion though, well done Ryan :)

  22. David
    David says:

    “Sorry, I can't agree with you here.

    If a prospective applicant's mommy or daddy started calling me to talk about the interview, that would reflect very badly on them to me. They're not kids anymore, and not in college either. When you join the working world you become an adult, and it's time to have mom & dad stop leading you by the hand.

    By all means, seek out advice from mom & dad behind the scenes. But they need to stand on their own 2 feet.”

    DAR – you’re absolutely correct, behind the scenes and no further. My stepson (during his senior year of college) stated, “I don’t know what to do” (as to what job offer he ought to accept). The parent in me stated, “I can’t make the decision for you, but if it were me … this is what I’d do.” Well, I directed him to what I thought, was the best opportunity for him (at the time). Well, now my “big shot” aspiring adult son would probably have taken the last minute offer from G.E. in Milwaukee, WI; but neither of us new what the “ultimate” best path ought to have been. Moral: if you “work” behind the scenes on “career strategy” you cannot be a “majority” stakeholder (notwithstanding the fact that adult “kids” don’t know what the hell they’re doing until about the age of 26 anyways).

    Well, Michael has done okay for himself. He is a Process Engineer for Wachovia Bank and aspiring MBA student (he ought to major in Supply Chain …) actually, it never ends.

  23. MarilynJean
    MarilynJean says:

    Thanks, Penelope for shedding some much needed perspective on the subject. I find myself not agreeing with Ryan on much, and this topic further underlined that sentiment. I won’t repeat what I think others have already said so eloquently.

    However, I will just say that “helicopter parents” are certainly a benefit of the priviliged – middle class and higher. It is almost smug, selfish and naive to take the position that these types of parents are a benefit in the workplace when all it does is further widen the gap between the “haves” and “have nots”.

  24. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I think the emotional effects on the child deserve more attention. Even parents with the best intentions can stifle the separation process that needs to occur. Many times the “helicoptering” begins very early on, in elementary school or earlier. When children feel such pressure to succeed, they spend their lives trying to please their parents. Many times this leads to a pefectionist complex and issues like eating disorders, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and depression. I would be interested to see a psychologist weigh in on this topic.

  25. seandineen
    seandineen says:

    Family assistence is not bad.
    I am a college prof, and doctoral student, I am also disabled. I have survived and thrived because pc or not loving family and friends got involved in what I was doing.
    I thank God for it, all this talk about independence is like Middle class morality for Alfred Doolitlle “Just an excuse for never giving me anything.

  26. Mike Harris
    Mike Harris says:

    I hire people for a sales floor. The instant an applicant’s parents contact me is the instant the kid loses the chance at the job.

    I expect an applicant for even an entry level position to exercise a certain degree of independent judgment. The child of a “helicopter parent” does not have this quality.

  27. Charlene
    Charlene says:

    Companies should endeavor to hire older job applicants. My generation (people in their 40s) learned how to stand on their own two feet.

    A 22 year old bringing mommy or daddy to the interview is a pathetic and weak person.

  28. Charlene
    Charlene says:

    There is already a gap have’s/have nots. Children of stockholders, wealthy and influential parents have a much better shot at plum positions than children who had to make it on their own.

    Just look at some of the young “interns” at companies and firms. Their parents arranged for them to get the internship, in most cases. Maybe Daddy was friends with the boss, perhaps they went to college together and were in the same fraternity. So Daddy arranges for his 18 year old son to get this internship. In most cases, these spoiled kids don’t even have to interview for their interships! Its just handed to them. I’ve seen them balk at having to even fill out applications, though, which is a requirement for HR. Then the interns do little or nothing on the job. They hand most of their work off to admins. They play online games all day or talk on the phone. This seems to be what corporate American wants – this is the precise reason I decided to jump out of the corporate world and go into self employment. I am not valued in the workplace, despite years of experience and well honed skills. I am at an age now where many employers don’t want me.

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