Director of Residential Life Kim Pacelli can expect to receive between 30 and 40 calls from parents during the housing lottery each spring.
Usually, parents call because they have been contacted by a son or daughter who is upset about a housing assignment. Pacelli said that often the parents calling do not fully understand the process of the housing lottery. Once she explains it, they are typically more understanding.
"It really ebbs and flows in terms of parent contact that we have here in Res Life," Pacelli said.
Although Pacelli receives calls less frequently during the rest of the year (six to 10 per month, she said), the nature of the calls are similar. Parents call because their son or daughter is unhappy with his or her living situation. Pacelli said she always begins conversations with parents by explaining the processes and philosophies behind residential education, and then most parents are "usually pretty reasonable," she said.
For instance, some parents hear that their son or daughter is not getting along with a roommate, and call requesting an immediate housing transfer. However, they do not realize that Residential Life has a conflict mediation protocol.
"I don't have ample space to be moving first years around," Pacelli said.
Pacelli added that she does sometimes have conversations where parents will drop the "$40,000 line." That is to say, they remind her of how much Bowdoin's approximate tuition costs.
While most parents are reasonable, Pacelli admitted that there are some exceptions.
"I can think of a very small handful of cases where the parent was way too involved," she said.
Assistant Professor of Psychology Samuel Putnam referred to a "scaffolding" analogy to describe the proper amount of involvement and support that parents should provide for children. Although his research focuses primarily on toddlers, he thinks that the instructional scaffolding can be applied to parents with students in college as well.
"You challenge them to accomplish things on their own, and you give them just enough support to accomplish it," he said.
Putnam said that he has never been contacted by a parent regarding a student's grade, but he does have colleagues at other colleges who have. If a parent were to ever get in touch with him about such a matter, he said it would put the student in "a questionable light."
Putnam believes that Bowdoin parents may be less likely to be excessively involved in their students' lives than parents of students at some other colleges. He thinks that there might be a correlation between "the caliber of the Bowdoin student" and the independence that they have from their parents.
"Maybe that's why [Bowdoin students] have accomplished so much," he said.
Like Putnam, Dean of First-Year Students Mary Pat McMahon thinks that overly involved parents may have a stronger presence at other colleges. She worked at Carnegie Melon University two summers ago, and she said that the term "helicopter parent" was used frequently there. In recent years, the term "helicopter parent" has been used in various journalistic accounts to describe parents who hover closely above of their children and are ready to descend and rescue them at any moment.
While these parents may not have as large of a presence at Bowdoin, McMahon will not deny their existence in students' lives here.
She believes that parents who call their sons and daughters frequently or are heavily involved in their lives in other ways have good intentions, and may even be aware that they are considered overly interested parents.
McMahon, who graduated from college in 1997, believes that students now are more frequently in contact with their parents than they were when she was an undergraduate.
"It was my impression in college that people talked to their parents once or twice a week," she said.
However, she noted that now some students talk with their parents on the phone at least once a day. She attributes this change to today's ubiquitous cell phone.
One problem that McMahon noted about students' phone calls to parents is that often these calls leave parents as victims of the "dumping factor." She explained that sometimes students will call parents to complain about various things, and then they'll hang up the phone and go have fun with friends. These sorts of conversations can leave parents with an incomplete, negative perception of the student's life.
In addition to concealing some aspects of their lives from parents, students are under no obligation by the College to reveal their grades to parents. McMahon said that students should have a conversation with their parents about privacy before "there is some more charged reason to talk about it later."
Finally, McMahon said that some students struggle with parents who have different expectations for their sons' and daughters' study-away or postgraduate endeavors than the students have for themselves. One common example of this sort of conflict happens when parents who expect their son or daughter to go to medical, law, or business school, and a student realizes he or she does not want to.
"Parents care so much that sometimes they have a hard time hearing their students say that they want to take bigger risks," McMahon said.
Blair McElroy, a staff clinician at counseling services, thinks that it can be hard for parents to watch their students make mistakes and sometimes fail. Like McMahon, she sees parental interest as a positive quality.
"I think the real strength of the millennial parent, or helicopter parent, is that they care," she said.
However, she acknowledged that there can be a downside to excessive involvement. A student that is too dependent on parents, McElroy said, could have a difficult time developing an internal compass, trusting herself without external feedback, and building skills to manage hardship and disappointment.
The Orient sought to interview students who have helicopter parents, but none were willing to talk about it.
McElroy thinks that students should talk openly with their parents about their involvement. Ideally, she said students and parents would be able to determine a way "to retain the connection in a way that fosters self-growth."