When Parental Involvement Goes Too Far

Parent concerns about their children’s safety often lead them to be fixated on “stranger danger,” while overlooking more common threats.

From time to time I hear Campus Safety readers express their concerns about their dealings with over-protective, “helicopter” parents. You know the type. In K-12 schools, it’s the father who won’t let his eight-year-old son walk alone to the local school out of fear he’ll be kidnapped. At universities, it’s the mother who alerts campus police when her daughter — who lives in the dorms and still calls home twice a day — is an hour late getting back to the residence hall.

To a certain extent, those of us in the campus safety and security field are the ones who benefit from this extreme fear. It is, after all, these same parents who are the first to demand that an institution have appropriate access control, mass notification, emergency plans, disaster drills and video surveillance, among other things. The helicopter parents are correct to a great degree in that a campus community should have these and other safety and security solutions in place.

Additionally, the institution benefits because these efforts can reduce insurance costs and liability exposures when or if an incident occurs.

By Keeping Them Too Safe, We’re Putting Them at Risk

But when does the focus on safety and security become an obsession? When does a parent’s involvement cross the line and become counterproductive, preventing a child from experiencing the positive and negative consequences of his or her actions?

My gut tells me that we are setting these kids up to be ill-prepared to deal with their current reality and the future by keeping them too dependent on us. Although the intentions of over-involved parents are admirable, their behavior may actually be putting their children at risk. It may feel good to be needed by our children, but I doubt it’s good for their safety, let alone their self esteem.

I become even more frustrated knowing that the demands of helicopter parents may be diverting the attention and resources of campus officials from other, more pressing issues that are insufficiently addressed.

For example, the probability that a child or young adult will be abducted by a stranger is remote, yet we often focus on this threat to the exclusion of others that are more likely to occur, such as sexual assaults. The Department of Justice estimates that at least one in five college women will be sexually assaulted at some point during their college years. Usually alcohol is a factor, and the attacker is often someone the victim knows.

Despite these disturbing statistics, the recently reauthorized Higher Education Authorization Act (HEOA) did little to further encourage institutions to increase their sexual assault prevention and victim assistance programs. Instead, it added new missing student protocols, which may drain the already limited resources of campus public safety departments.

Sexual Assaults, Alcohol Abuse Pose Greater Threats

Parents who want to take concrete steps to protect their children should be urging their legislators and children’s schools to focus on sexual assaults and alcohol abuse rather than stranger danger.

The over-protective parenting phenomenon might also be perpetuating the litigious nature of our society. By embracing the belief that we should be able to prevent anything bad from happening to our children, we find it much easier to blame (and sue) when something goes wrong.

Fortunately, the pendulum of parental enmeshment appears to be swinging the other way. “The Growing Backlash Against Overparenting” recently published in TIME Magazine discusses a current movement, which goes by various monikers such as “slow parenting” and “free range parenting.” This new movement encourages parents who are obsessed with their children’s lives, including their safety and security, to back off a little and find a healthy balance.

Does this mean we should stop paying attention to less probable dangers on campus? Absolutely not. But perhaps as a society we can take a closer look at what constitutes reasonable risk and what we deem to be real threats vs. perceived ones.


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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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