Helicopter Parents Embarrassing Their Kids at Admitted Students Weekend

It's tough being a business school in the era of helicopter parents. How do you make leaders out of twenty-somethings who are still attached to mommy by an invisible umbilical cord?

Now that Admitted Students Weekends are behind us, administrators and professors around the country are wondering whether they admitted mom and dad by accident.

BusinessWeek reports on the overbearing parents of incoming MBA students who arrange housing for their kids, try to crash incoming student dinners, sit in on classes, and clash with campus administrators and professors trying to set some boundaries. And that's after they've already butted in on the admissions process:

At Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, 75 students attended this past weekend's welcome event for admitted and confirmed students. Ten parents also came, said Brian Lohr, Mendoza's director of admissions.

. . .

A mother of a Boston University School of Management student asked the admissions office last year if she could attend an open house for admitted students in place of her child, says Chris Storer, BU's associate director of admissions. The school refused to let her attend the event, he says. "It's really designed for students to connect with each other and other admitted candidates," Storer adds. "It sort of defeats the purpose if we were to allow random parents to come."

. . .

Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, recalls two recent cases where parents called her office after learning their children didn't get into Tuck and proceeded to complain about the school's decision. "I would say I think that the applicants would be really mortified if they know how their parents had handled it, and in both cases the parents didn't want the applicants to know they had contacted us," Clarke says.

I've heard similar reports from law schools. One law school administrator I talked to this past week reported the following:

We had several students bring one or both parents to Admitted Students Weekend. I don't get it. Why would parents want to be here? Why would students tolerate their parents being here???

Parents now show up at orientation, call the Dean of Students to ask to have their kid's schedule changed ("my daughter simply can't have 8:30 classes"), call the Dean to complain about faculty, call the registrar to complain about grades, try to come to their students admissions interviews, call the Dean of Admissions about admissions decisions...

Don't get me wrong -- we love it when parents come to visit their enrolled students or when parents join their prospective students on a general admissions tour. I don't mind answering the parents' reasonable questions on those tours either. The ordinary parents ask questions about housing, financial aid, and safety, mostly. The ones I don't like are the ones who speak on behalf of their children at all times and never let the kid ask a question. And it's the ones who get involved with the day-to-day academic and social lives of students who are old enough to drive, vote, and drink who baffle me.

From a thirty-something law school professor:

I was on a faculty panel during admitted students weekend, and I noticed a kid in the audience flanked by his parents. He had a look of absolute panic on his face the entire time. I felt really bad for him.

And from as a thirty-something law firm partner:

Talk about an automatic ding -- if you need Mommy to fight your battles, I don't think much of your chances going up against the plaintiffs' bar.

The problem is, Generation Y is a good 80 million strong, and employers are going to have to deal with helicopter parents in the workplace whether they like it or not.

I've written before about Gen Y's narcissism (that description comes from a recent study), how parents and the admissions process feed that narcissism, and how employers can best manage Gen Y. My 15 tips for motivating Gen Y in the workplace have been getting a lot of feedback -- most recently a request to distribute the article at a conference of law firms discussing retention problems.

Now comes an article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal about the limitless praise that Gen Y expects at work (see my tip #5), and the "praise consultants" companies are hiring to help them dole it out.

Childhood in recent decades has been defined by such stroking -- by parents who see their job as building self-esteem, by soccer coaches who give every player a trophy, by schools that used to name one "student of the month" and these days name 40.

Now, as this greatest generation grows up, the culture of praise is reaching deeply into the adult world. Bosses, professors and mates are feeling the need to lavish praise on young adults, particularly twentysomethings, or else see them wither under an unfamiliar compliment deficit.

Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands' End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email, prize packages and public displays of appreciation. The 1,000-employee Scooter Store Inc., a power-wheelchair and scooter firm in New Braunfels, Texas, has a staff "celebrations assistant" whose job it is to throw confetti -- 25 pounds a week -- at employees. She also passes out 100 to 500 celebratory helium balloons a week. The Container Store Inc. estimates that one of its 4,000 employees receives praise every 20 seconds, through such efforts as its "Celebration Voice Mailboxes."

. . .

Sixty-year-old David Foster, a partner at Washington, D.C., law firm Miller & Chevalier, is making greater efforts to compliment young associates -- to tell them they're talented, hard-working and valued. It's not a natural impulse for him. When he was a young lawyer, he says, "If you weren't getting yelled at, you felt like that was praise."

But at a retreat a couple of years ago, the firm's 120 lawyers reached an understanding. Younger associates complained that they were frustrated; after working hard on a brief and handing it in, they'd receive no praise. The partners promised to improve "intergenerational communication." Mr. Foster says he feels for younger associates, given their upbringings. "When they're not getting feedback, it makes them very nervous." [See tip #1.]

. . .

At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, marketing consultant Steve Smolinsky teaches students in their late 20s who've left the corporate world to get M.B.A. degrees. He and his colleagues feel handcuffed by the language of self-esteem, he says. "You have to tell students, 'It's not as good as you can do. You're really smart, and can do better.'"

Mr. Smolinsky enjoys giving praise when it's warranted, he says, "but there needs to be a flip side. When people are lousy, they need to be told that." He notices that his students often disregard his harsher comments. "They'll say, 'Yeah, well...' I don't believe they really hear it."

My advice to employers? Here.

My advice to twenty-somethings? Go against the herd. You'll distinguish yourself in the admissions process, in school, in the hiring process, and on the job if you present yourself as an independent, mature adult and leave mommy and daddy at home.

My advice to parents? Stop infantilizing your adult children, and stop living through them vicariously. (I wonder if there such a thing as narcissism by proxy?) You are doing them no favors by depriving them of important life skills and experiences, and you're making them look like incapable, pampered toddlers in front of people they're trying to impress. Harsh, but true.