Understanding Millennials: Parental Relations

By Julianne Scibetta, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia

They hover over your shoulder and watch your every move. They question every line you give them. They insist that their needs are more important than anyone else's. They tell you that you need them more than they need you. All this and their child hasn't even arrived on campus yet.

Today's parents don't go away. No matter what you may do to begin the separation process, their minds are made up: they will ensure that their child gets exactly what they deserve. And like many stubborn people - take the father Marlin in Finding Nemo, for example - you just can't talk them out of it; they are wary of letting their children "just ride the wave." And not that there's anything wrong about that.

I think we would all agree that it's better to have involved parents than uninvolved. Today's parents have now gone through one if not two generations of PTA meetings and after-school activities. And as yesterday's students age into today's parents, they are a group more educated and more hip to what college offers.

"Perhaps no characteristic distinguishes today's children from those in the past more than the high educational level of their parents. Educated parents are more critical and demanding of caregivers, health care providers, schools, and other organizations that cater to children" (New Strategist Editors, 2001). In fact, half (50.7%) of children now under 24 live with parents (including single-parent households) who have completed some college or associates degree or a college degree. This number is only expected to rise.

Previous education is only one facet of the Millennial-parent-psyche: good old fashioned American self-esteem issues may be another. Millennials students are more confident about the job their parents are doing than parents themselves. In fact, Millennials are nearly twice as likely to say that their parents manage work and parenting "very successfully" than parents (New Strategist Editors, 2001). Parents are psychologically second-guessing themselves as to how good they're doing - and trying to overcompensate for the imagined gap by overparenting - or hovering - into the adult years.

And we in education aren't in this shadow alone. Increasingly employers are also hearing from parents of their employees: "The parents seem to see it as no different than challenging a bad grade in school… when [parents] think [their children] aren't being treated fairly or didn't like something in a performance review." (Zemke, 2001).

Neil Howe, co-author of Millennials Rising, provides his insight into the mindset of these helicopter parents: "'Whoever is in charge is seen as "in loco parentis" and is accountable for everything… accountable for training, career planning and for providing a safe and risk-free work environment'" (qtd. in Zemke, 2001). We at learning centers are at the forefront of student services designed, in parents' minds, as exactly what will promise a student is academically successful in school, partly assumed because of the increase in the availability of private and professional tutoring in the last generation.

Tutors enter the picture here, or at least can, as mentors - not quite parents, not quite peers, but existing at that gray line in between that is respected by students merely because they have an acquired learning the Millennials want/need. It's not that students need more parenting, but they are comfortable enough to tolerate and demand more supervision. Likewise, parents are just as used to dealing with caretakers for their children and demanding personalized care. Is it any wonder that we are viewed as the caretakers of their children's education, and therefore subject to more parental scrutiny?

Over the last decade or so, several universities have installed a department to directly handle this parental scrutiny. At this time I'd like to borrow from their collaborative wisdom to provide you with some solutions when dealing with parents. In true Millennial fashion, let's not reinvent the wheel but find shiny new bling for it instead.

An office of parental relations is the most obvious starting point for this discussion. Often staffed by one or two people, this office or liaison handles parental concerns directly. Assessment of how the university is performing in the eyes of parents can be handled through this department, and it can also provide a buffer to the actual service departments that already have enough on their plates.

Don't have one of these nifty new departments? Look for or encourage a campus-wide policy on parental relations instead, written or unwritten. Of course FERPA provides enough of a policy for many parties concerned; be clear on your university's way of handling consumer complaints and be sure your staff understands as well.

An even smaller but effective way to accommodate parents is by being straightforward and explicit about the details of your services. Be sure to make contact with parents during orientation. Keep your information posted where parents can find it. I find the internet is often underutilized by universities to provide a resource for parents. If your institution's main website doesn't have a special area for answering parent questions, make a list of your own, and make it visible.

If this seems like common sense customer service tips I'm giving you, you wouldn't be wrong. Parents of Millennials are savvier customers of higher education than ever before. And as this growing trend of second- and third- generation college students continues, we must prepare to meet the higher demands of today's students - tomorrow's parents.

Millennials are still growing and maturing as a generation. As such, I invite your comments, suggestions, and experiences to enrich our understanding of the "Nexters."

Next month: Merging Technology with Tutoring


New Strategist Editors. (2001). The millennials: Americans under age 25. Ithaca, NY: New Strategist Publications, Inc.

Zemke, R. (2001). Here come the millennials. Training, 38 (7), 44-49.

Questions or comments? Contact the author at j.scibet@usip.edu.