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Published October 20, 2012, 11:40 PM

Robin Huebner Reports: Child rearing doesn't end with high school graduation

MOORHEAD – Laura Oster-Aaland sometimes hears helicopter-mom horror stories in her job helping students and their parents’ transition in to college. “I’ve heard of parents wanting to go to job interviews with their children, even wanting to negotiate their salary,” says Oster-Aaland, North Dakota State University director of Orientation and Student Success.

By: Robin Huebner, INFORUM

MOORHEAD – Laura Oster-Aaland sometimes hears helicopter-mom horror stories in her job helping students and their parents’ transition in to college.

“I’ve heard of parents wanting to go to job interviews with their children, even wanting to negotiate their salary,” says Oster-Aaland, North Dakota State University director of Orientation and Student Success.

There are tales of parents contacting professors directly to inquire about their child’s grades.

While the term helicopter parent might be a derogatory one, it’s a sign that parents are more involved in their children’s lives than ever before.

“It’s simply a cultural shift,” Oster-Aaland said.

It used to be that when kids turned 18, they left home for a job, to get married or to go to college.

Today it’s not unusual for adult children to move back in with their parents, to rely on them for financial support or to check in with them many times a day via phone or texting.

Kathy Hunstad of Moorhead says she doesn’t consider herself a helicopter mom, but parenting three adult children is more hands on and tougher than she thought it would be – more difficult even than parenting young children.

“I wasn’t prepared for this,” Hunstad says. “I underestimated how the worry in some ways ratchets up.”

As director of youth ministry at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, Hunstad has a very full work life, which means she isn’t always available for her kids.

That often makes her feel guilty.

“You have to take the time when they need you to take the time,” she says. “As working parents, we don’t always have the time.”

Hunstad describes her kids – 27-year-old Elizabeth (or Eli for short), 25-year-old Nels and 19-year-old Bjorn – as “out-of-the-box creative types” who are still finding their way in college and work.

Eli earned a degree in film and is doing an internship in costume sewing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. She’s also taking a course in apparel technology.

She moved home to get her footing several times after starting college.

Putting herself in her parents’ shoes, Eli says, “I can see how it would be harder, finding the balance.”

“The roles of dependence and independence are changing,” Eli says. “You’re developing a more adult relationship with your parent.”

The Hunstad’s middle son, Nels, works with his father in the family screen-printing and specialty gift business.

Nels says while he’s independent in a lot of ways, he also moved back home several different times.

He still goes to his parents for major decisions and financial support.

“I totally see that with my generation,” says Nels.

“Student debt is really crippling,” he continued.

“You can’t feel comfortable getting an apartment or a car because you never know what the economy is going to do. It’s rare that kids make it through college on their own.”

Colleges and universities are responding to the cultural shift toward more hands-on parents.

As part of Oster-Aaland’s job, she oversees programs for parents of NDSU students.

When those programs started in the early 1990s, as few as 25 percent of parents participated. Today, 90 percent do.

“Today’s parents are highly engaged,” says Oster-Aaland.

One tricky aspect of the super-involved parent is privacy. Colleges and universities are bound by certain federal laws, which say parents can’t access their child’s educational information unless the student signs a waiver form.

When NDSU’s parent programs were first set up, only a handful of parents would ask for those forms.

“Now most do, and they stand over their student while he or she signs it,” says Oster-Aaland.

Oster-Aaland says researchers have confirmed that full brain development, or true adulthood, doesn’t actually occur until around age 25.

“Rental car companies have known it for years,” she says. “That’s why they won’t rent a car to anyone under age 25.”

Oster-Aaland applauds parents being plugged in to their adult children‘s lives, but there is a down side, she says. Some kids never learn how to do things for themselves.

For Brent Gerber, a father of two living in Moorhead, the biggest challenge of parenting adult children is not much different than parenting small children.

It has to do with giving them appropriate levels of freedom at the right time.

“If you do that right kids learn to respect you in the process,” Gerber says.

Gerber’s 23-year-old daughter Rachel works at an advertising agency in Sioux Falls, S.D., and his 18-year-old daughter Sarah attends Concordia College in Moorhead.

“The ideal situation is that they respect you enough that they don’t want to let you down with their decisions,” he says.

Kathy Hunstad is constantly looking for that balance between doing too much and not recognizing when to step in.

“Have I given them enough tools?” she says. “Sometimes I think if I had helped them a little more, they would have been able to avoid a terrible experience,” she says wistfully.

Still, mistakes have an upside, Hunstad says.

“They’re a necessary part of learning. Even some of the bad choices can be helpful learning for life.”

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