Good Parenting Gone Bad

I have a parenting confession to make.  I have gone to one of my sons’ dorms and done his laundry.  I have scraped every dirty sock and jersey off of his bedroom floor, carefully separating his debris from that of his two roommates which was all commingled in one large reeking mass.  I then carried these teeming piles, along with every sheet and towel I could lay my hands on, to his basement and ran six loads of laundry.

I did this once on a Parents’ Weekend and, just when I thought I had lost it, taken my overparenting to a new level, his roommate’s mother looked at and me and said, “Too bad the boys don’t have a vacuum” and then proceeded to take a lint roller out of her handbag and roll their entire carpet on her hands and knees.  I was stunned. Was I outparented or had I finally discovered the line I would not cross?

Parenting Teens and College Kids: Learning how to back off [In my defense, this is not a stock photo.] 

I thought I was doing some good, after all, my child had run out of clean socks and underwear and for two decades I have been the purveyor of everything clean.  But when I read the headlines today, that new research has shown hovering can harm, I wondered if I was doing my son any favors.

According to a new study titled “Helping or Hovering: A Parent’s Dilemma,” parental involvement is associated with “positive child outcomes” if that involvement is age appropriate.  However, when a parent is excessively controlling in a child’s life, particularly when that child is, in fact, a college age student and, in reality, a young adult, the outcomes are not so positive and include depression and anxiety. It is scientific proof, we are told, that helicopter parenting is in fact not helping.

The problem arises, according to the authors of the study, when our parenting becomes age inappropriate.  They concluded by finding that college kids who had over-controlling parents were more depressed and less satisfied with their lives than those who had “autonomy supportive parents.”

The researchers readily acknowledged that prior studies have shown that college students with highly involved parents actually had increased personal and social development and a greater satisfaction with life.  Involvement in our children’s lives is not the problem, it is the nature of that involvement they argue, that has the potential for harm.

This study I fear does not give us great insights into when we have gone too far in our parenting.  In order to conduct the research, the team investigating looked only at the mother-daughter relationship.  As those relationships form only one-quarter of the child-parent dyads, I wonder if it is fair to draw too many conclusions.

The study also asked students to comment on some characteristics of their mother’s parenting.  Helicopter mothers were defined as those who monitored who their college kids spend time with, where their kids were, how much they exercised and ate and would be ready to intervene with a roommate or a professor if there was a problem.  Even for those of us well-practiced in overparenting this seems excessive.

The question that plagues parents of college students is where is the line between enabling and disabling, when does our love keep them from growing up? Most parenting is not as extreme as that portrayed in the study, but that doesn’t mean that it is not damaging.  This week alone I have doled out medical advice to two sick college sons, proofread employment cover letters, given advice on resumes and acted as a personal financial advisor.  Did I go to far?

I knew when to tell my five-year old that he needed to tie his own shoes and had no trouble deciding when to let middle schoolers go to the movies without parents or to let high schoolers finally stay out until midnight.  But sometimes this is harder.  As parents, we harken back to our own college years, but a world in which parent-child contact consisted of one Sunday evening call a week does not provide much guidance.  This letting go has fewer clear lines and demarcations.

When the authors looked at over parenting and depression they were forced to admit that it was very hard to pull apart the causality and interactions.  Few college students manage to sail through four years of college without a few rough emotional moments, and most parents know the sound of that heart dropping phone call.  I think one of my sons had it right when he said college is a time of high highs and low lows.  Suddenly we find that our otherwise cheery college student has realized that she hates her roommate, he has earned the first C- of his life and despairs of Law School, and they have been dumped by the love of their young life.

Our heart-strings are pulled and we are unable to do more than listen, offer well-meaning platitudes and send chocolate chip cookies.  Sometimes these disappointments can leave our kids hurting for days or weeks or even months. And then we hover a bit.  We call more often and ask more questions.  As the those who love them most, we stay close until the episode has passed gauging whether our child is managing or perhaps should be encouraged to seek help.  We hover because our child is anxious or down, they are not anxious or down because we hover.

The study concluded by calling for more research on the hovering-depression casualty and suggesting that researchers even look to see if parents hover because they themselves are depressed.  Such research, I fear, will not be helpful until it looks at more mainstream intensive parenting rather than parents exhibiting the most extreme behavior.  The question is not whether to hover versus help, but rather when should we hover and when should we help and when we should stop doing their laundry.

By Grown and Flown Parenting From the Empty Nest



  1. Joanne says

    I think there is a line between hovering and mothering, but you don’t stop being their mother because they go to college. They really have to tackle the big things–grades, jobs, internships. If you can just give some TLC, like doing laundry, sending a little extra $ or being an ear and giving suggestions, what could be wrong with that? They are still your children to support. My daughter is far away at school on the opposite coast as we are, but I try to do things to brighten her day by sending packages, e-cards and mail. At the end of the day, she knows it’s her job to soldier on, but not wihout support. I think the goal of involvement is make sure they always feel loved and to restore and strengthen them.

    • says

      Joanne thank you so much for that great comment. You are so right. I just felt that this study used extreme parenting and therefore gave us few insights. Also there is a time to hover even when our kids are at school. Most kids have a few rough moments, that they manage through, but it doesn’t hurt if parents stay just a bit more attuned at those times. College really does have its ups and downs.

    • says

      I tried not to laugh, but who was I to judge, running up and down to the basement doing loads of laundry.

  2. says

    It may be worth thinking about what kind of husband he’ll be one day. I imagine that he’ll start picking stuff up when he has his own place and dates start coming over.

    • says

      Kim I worry about this and have discussed it with him at length. Hoping that love will change his evil ways…

      • says

        When my son was 11 I went into his (very messy) room and said something like, ‘Someday you are your wife are going to fight over you leaving your stuff lying around like this!” He, completely unperturbed by my tirade, said, “Mom, I’m 11. I’m not going to be married for a long time. I think I have time to work on that.”

    • says

      This is the thought I had about picking up after my son. I worried that I was setting an impossible standard for a future daughter-in-law to come that would make her life miserable. And I guess, truth be told, that she’d eventually blame me for.

      I want my son to become the best husband ever and I guess I think the best way to get there is not to hover over him in a way that will make him think that women were put on this earth to clean up after him. If that means that he lives in squalor then he lives in squalor. At least a girl will know what she’s getting into then.

  3. says

    Now that I am finally on my third college child (the baby!) I have learned to ask when help and/or hovering is needed. I’m finding that if I ask, he often feels better just because of my presence, and I don’t actually have to take any action.

  4. says

    What does it say about my parenting that I stopped doing my children’s laundry when they were 16. I figured if they were old enough to drive a car, which can kill people, then they were old enough to operate other heavy machinery, like a washing machine. As far as the boy/girl gender divide? I had to show my daughter exactly once how to use the washing machine. My son played a convincing game of learned helplessness for months before I caught onto him and stopped showing him how to put the clothes in and turn the dang thing on.

    • says

      He was supposed to be doing his own laundry, he had been at school for weeks at this point, things were just not going according to plan. Think you did the right thing, I left it until they were going to college to make them take responsibility. I have one more chance and I think I am going to follow your lead!

  5. says

    I think it is best to use your intuition. The timing of reading that study and doing your son’s laundry is coincidental but what is the alternative of not helping him when he obviously needs it. Him asking for money to buy new clothes, skipping class because his clothes are dirty, or wearing dirty clothes to school. Winter is difficult. College is difficult (I’ve heard). You love your boy. I doubt he thought, this is depressing that my room is so clean. He probably thought how great his mom is. As long as it doesnt become expected, or a pattern, I think helping him was a nice gesture and could have been the uplifting jolt he needed. If a child asks for help, no matter their age, the parent should be there. But, asserting “help” (advice on diet, exercise, friends) when not asked for could definitely be demeaning. This advice is from me being a college age kid, because my kids are toddlers. I would like to think all the thoughts above are how I would handle my boys though.

    • says

      It is so hard to know how we are going to act because our kids are all so different. I have not done this for my other kids, because they are different and have different needs. I have made the mistake of asserting my advice and am really trying to bite my tongue. I think if I did what you are doing, remember being in their shoes, I would do a better job.

      • says

        I think the statement that you haven’t done this for your other kids proves you did the right thing in that situation! Being able to provide what each child needs; emotional support, a helping hand, a home cooked meal is a beautiful thing. Probably exhausting for you but very thoughtful for your children. It’s important to give individualized care. And if they dont recognize the beauty of it yet, they will.

  6. says

    My daughter’s apartment was broken into a few months back (we live in the same town). I arrived at the same time as the police. I pulled him aside before he walked into her place to assure him the place had not been ransacked. While it was bad enough that a tv and my daughter’s computer was stolen, the roommates computer wasn’t taken because it was hidden under a mountain of clothes. The entire apt. looked like your son’s dorm room floor. So I was there to handle the crisis, but I didn’t stay to pick up the mess.

    • says

      Oh no, never thought of that as being a benefit of being untidy, don’t think I will tell my son this story.

  7. says

    When my son returned home for a semester after 2 years away at college, it was a real struggle to keep from “mommying” him – but I think the fact that I didn’t (nor did his father hover) is a big part of the reason why he decided to return to the university he had left. I feel a blog post coming on…

  8. says

    I stopped doing laundry for my children before they reached middle school. Does that make me a slacker mom?

    I honestly don’t believe you can predict outcomes based solely on parental involvement. There is no formula for raising an independent, capable adult, no matter how much we wish there were.

    • says

      I feel that you have let me off the hook and for that I am grateful. It does not make you a slacker mom, but a mom who got her kids ready for the world and isn’t that our job?

    • says

      I tried to keep a straight face…but I don’t even own a lint roller so I had to laugh. She was probably laughing at me too.

  9. Sherri says

    I cannot tell you how much I needed to read this today. So many of my friends cannot relate to these high highs and low lows…and we are dealing with so much of that it makes my head spin. Thank you for showing me that I am not alone!

    • says

      So so so glad if I helped at all. It is such a tumultuous time of life, something I think I must have forgotten. Good luck, really.

  10. says

    Such a good post! I’m a big advocate of free range parenting and allowing natural consequences to teach our children.

  11. Risa says

    You know those amusement park rides that say “You must be this tall” to get on? I used my washing machine as a gauge. When my kids (3) could see over the top, they were old enough to do their own laundry. Same for the kitchen counter and making their own lunches. When he was around 8, my older son asked me why his friends didn’t have to do those things for themselves. I told him how proud I was that he could take care of himself–that no matter what, he would have clean clothes and wouldn’t go hungry! One day, I said, you’ll go off to college and already know this stuff when other guys will need to call home for help. He bought it–and it proved to be true! I’ve never regretted teaching my sons and my daughter to pull their weight with chores around the house. They may have groused about it, but it prepared them to be good roommates and spouses.
    I hope that lint roller mom got a good laugh about it later!

    • says

      Love that. it is great advice and I hope others read your words. My kids grew early, I could have been off the hook years ago.

  12. LL says

    Cracking up – are you sure you didn’t steal that photo from both/either of my daughters’ rooms? Girls are no better. The first time I arrived at my older daughter’s dorm room, I got so apopleptic about the mess, that she decided it was best for me not to come help with the packing up or moving in; she’d rather do it herself. A win-win for both of us. I did move my younger daughter into her dorm room freshman year, and came armed with clorox wipes. After I successfully attacked every single surface of the room, I left her to unpack and figure out how to set up. My guess is that the room will not be cleaned again until the next mom comes along…….

    • says

      What is it about dorm rooms?! I guess it is the temporary nature of the set up, but nine months sheesh, you would think they would be tempted to clean up once….right?

      • LL says

        Hmmm…embarrassed to admit this behavior is not confined only to dorm rooms in my daughters’ cases. I fumigate their bedrooms at home twice a year, after the summer and winter holidays. And that is only so that I don’t have to look at or smell the detritus. When they are home, the doors stay closed because I can’t handle the mess, nor will I attempt to clean it.

        Ironically, they “clean” (term used fairly loosely) their dorm rooms before we come to visit. Even change the bed linens! Perhaps something rubbed off on them.

  13. says

    I didn’t get the chance to hover, enable, whatever, because both kids were too far away. HOWEVER, I babysit my granddaughter one day a week at my son and daughter-in-love’s home and I do dishes, laundry, etc. while she’s napping. They don’t expect it and are very appreciative. You never stop being a mom!

    • says

      I cannot imagine how grateful they must be, your granddaughter wrapped in love and the kitchen clean, every mother’s dream.

  14. says

    Too funny – comments as well as the post. Loved Chloe’s comment from her son – what a wise little 11 year old. Sounds like something one of my boys would have said. And I loved the washing machine as a guide. What gems.

    I almost called my 25 year old son’s work the other day because I hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks and he didn’t respond to texts or calls. But I backed off thinking how that would appear to him and those he works with. He called a few days later on his own – of course – was just fine.

    It’s hard – the letting go. But I have learned that they’ll ask and call when they need some mom love or wisdom – or just my listening ear.

    • says

      You are so right it is usually the listening ear that they want. We have been their sounding board from the moment they uttered their first words and it is nice to still be in that role.

  15. says

    Love the picture of the dorm room. Looks like my 17 year old’s dumpster that she inhabits in the far end of our house. If you’re looking for some free therapy, please check out my blog on WP. The Society for Recovering Doormats. You don’t have to be a doormat to visit or join; but it helps. Rose

  16. says

    K has had chores to do around the house since she was 3. As she got older she got more chores. She is now 20 and recently was giving us a really hard time and we told her that she had to leave and find somewhere else to live. It was so hard to do but if we didn’t teach her that there are consequences for her actions, who would ? In the end she didn’t move out, we had a few family discussions, gave her 3 rules that we would absolutely not negotiate on and told her this was it – follow the rules or leave. She said the worst we could do is make her live in her car and we wouldn’t do that and we told in no uncertain terms that we would. That seemed to scare her enough into following the rules and accepting the consequences for her actions. We also doubled her board and have charged her for insurance and rego of her car which we were paying while she was in uni but now she has dropped out, she has to pay for. Parenting is so easy ……….. said nobody EVER !!!
    I dont’ think I would have done any washing if I’d been there – maybe looked in the room at the floor-robe and said “Gee, this looks just like your bedroom did at home” and walked out !!!! As for going on my hands and knees with a lint-roller – never going to happen !!!
    Have a great day !

  17. says

    great post. i think we have to trust that we will know when to hover-although i have a feeling none of us are hoverers- and when to help and we’ll have to learn to forgive ourselves when we are wrong. i wouldn’t worry to much about the daughter in law thing. i washed the dishes, did the laundry etc etc for my daughter too without giving a thought to what it might mean down the road. i think that at this age, we have peer moments with our kids. we’d not think twice about pitching in for a sibling or a friend who needed a hand. it’s almost the same thing. you’re there and something needs to be done so you do it. as long as they appreciate it and don’t see it as a silent reprimand of sorts, i think it’s fine.

    • says

      Should have entitled this when to Hover and when to Hoover, really a missed opportunity. Looking at it as a peer moment really redefines the question, I am not sure that I am there yet, they never seem like peers but that may be simply because they are in school. Thanks for your thought provoking comment.

  18. says

    One thing my husband and I try to do is remember that when we were in college, it was from those painful moments that we grew up a bit. So that makes it a little bit easier to let our daughter flounder/find her way while she’s there – and for us to let go. I recently wrote on this subject for our local parenting magazine – but more from the academic perspective. Here’s a link if you are interested in reading but no pressure to do so!

  19. says

    We need to learn the difference between teaching our children to live their lives, and living their lives for them. Sometimes, while they are learning the big skills, and tackling the big projects, of education, relationships, managing work & life, I think it is okay to support them with an act of kindness: a home-cooked meal, the gift of a few loads of laundry, a bag of groceries, (I raised a 6’5″ rower, and that boy could never get enough to eat!), even a lint-rollered carpet! And after all, that was on Parents’ Weekend, not a random trip to college just to do your child’s laundry!
    I have proof-read a few cover letters, but never authored them, taught all three of mine to cook, but also offered an occasional pot of chili to ‘take home’. Now I feel one of the greatest supports I can offer my young-adult children is to be their audience, and listen to them talk about their accomplishments, as they build their increasingly independent lives. Remember when they were challenging toddlers, and you were told to try to ‘catch them being good’? I guess it’s the same deal. They share; I give positive feedback when they achieve something special. it’s a win-win scenario.
    Regarding your photo of the dorm room: a friend of mine says her daughter dresses from her ‘floordrobe’!

    • says

      Thank you for excusing me. Yes it was Parent’s Weekend and yes I did not do make a habit of it. It is nice from time to time, to just be mom and give a helping hand. And you are right, when it is from time to time.

      Love Flooedrobe. More than one mom has mentioned that their child uses the same decorator as mine!

  20. Carpool Goddess says

    Oh gosh, I know this feeling well. You’re a great mom and you’re going to hover a little more when it’s needed. You’ll know when it’s time to back away. I tend to hover when there’s an issue, an injury or an illness, but I draw the line, as hard as it may be, at cleaning their dorm room or washing the mile high stack of laundry when I visit. I can’t, however, keep my mouth shut. I just couldn’t help but mention the inch thick of dust covering most of the surfaces and it took all the energy I had to keep my hands in my pockets. One day they’ll wake up and realize they don’t want to live like cavemen. I hope.

  21. says

    That is a hard line. My kids didn’t go away to college, so I never had the dorm room issue to deal with, but I have seen their apartments and it’s obvious that they take after me in the housekeeping department (sadly). I try to draw the line carefully between being involved and taking over and try to allow them their space unless I see them heading for a total train wreck situation. Thanks for visiting my blog today.

  22. Joanne says

    I work with your college age children every day. As an admissions professional, seminar instructor, Greek life advisor AND a mother of twin boys age 23 I have seen the good, the bad and the outrageous parenting. We have parents who withhold monetary support because their child’s GPA is ONLY a 3.6. We have parents who hack their child’s emails and answer their cell phones to prevent them from getting information. We have very balanced and wonderful parents who know when to get out of the way. I myself have teetered between stepping in and letting go and it continues into the work force.

    College in particular affords young adults with a safety net for their explorations both academically and socially. The professionals are here to support them with information and a shoulder to cry on when the going get tough.

    My advice, listen carefully but react slowly. The crisis of today can sometimes become a non issue in an hour. We do not make our children better by stepping in every time. The characteristic absent in today’s college students is risk taking. They are so afraid to fail that they don’t take any chances and if a parent does not allow to them to experience some failures and recover from those failures they will never learn that you never really fail until you stop trying.

    • says

      Joanne, these are some of the wisest words I have heard…thank you and can I quote you? Not last name, but I would like to share your thoughts with a wider audience.

  23. Diane B. says

    You know, I once read a very wise piece of advice: Take your son to college. Help him get his room set up — put the matching sheets on the bed, straighten out the comforter, help hang posters with approved wall fasteners, help hang up the clothes. Then, stand back and look lovingly at the room. Leave — and NEVER come back. :-) Meet him at restaurants for the remainder of his college career — food is the big lure at that point, and his roommate definitely does NOT want you around. Keep the picture of the room as you left it in your mind, imagining your child moving neatly from desk, to neatly organized closet to neatly made bed.

    • says

      That is very good advice because the room you come back to, well dorm rooms are not for the faint of heart. Thanks for the advice!


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