How Helicopter Parents and Multiple Valedictorians Are Hurting the U.S. Economy

Helicopter Parents and Multiple Valedictorians
Helicopter Parents and Multiple Valedictorians

Many electrons have been wasted lamenting the state of the U.S. economy. Sure, there's plenty to say about the trade imbalance with China, the growing federal deficit and the country's dependence on foreign oil. But Americans also need to pay attention to how our young people are being prepared for the workplace.

As the The New York Times recently noted, students are getting some very strange signals from their schools about what it means to be the best.

"In top suburban schools across the country, the valedictorian, a beloved tradition, is rapidly losing its singular meaning as administrators dispense the title to every straight-A student rather than try to choose the best among them," the paper says. One elite high school near where I live had nine -- count them, nine -- valedictorians. Another story notes that at least 10 law schools have made their grading systems more lenient over the past two years.

This news is depressing for many reasons. For one thing, people in the "real world" don't get graded on a curve. There are clear winners and losers, and the sooner that young people realize that, the better. Americans are falling short in an increasingly competitive world. Out of the 31 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. students finished 15th in reading, 19th in math, and 14th in science. The U.S. has been losing its edge as a technology innovator for years. A recent survey revealed that 77% of companies planning to build new R&D sites in the next three years are constructing them in China or India.

"It's a competitive world out there, and at some point we have to learn about it," says William Booher, chief operating officer of the Council on Competitiveness, who notes that "some of the feeling that kids are being coddled comes from generational experience."

Children of Helicopter Parents Can't "Roll With the Punches"

Of course, getting help and advice from your parents can be a good thing -- within limits. Though it's tempting, I am going to resist making the argument that the young people today have gone soft because they didn't have to walk five miles uphill to school every day in blinding snowstorms. I'm also going to cut parents a break -- most of us have the common sense to teach our children right from wrong, and most can tell the difference between when it's time to help our children and when it's time to let them learn things for themselves.

Indeed, helping your child establish their career is fine. A minority of parents, though, won't let their sons and daughters lead their own lives. These so-called "helicopter parents" seek to cushion their offspring from every conceivable disappointment by fighting all of their battles for them, from demanding better grades of college professors to complaining to their children's employers about their benefits.

Neil Montgomery, a professor of psychology at New Hampshire's Keene State College, sees the impact of over-parenting firsthand among his freshman students. His research has found that helicopter parenting leads to undesirable personality traits.

"When they meet obstacles, they get frustrated and angry," he says in an interview. "They are not able to roll with the punches."

Rolling with the punches is exactly what's needed in today's global workforce. Workers need to be flexible and realize that not everything is about them. Instead, corporations are stuck cleaning up the messes created by supermoms and superdads. It has gotten to the point where companies need to distribute "parent packets" for new employees pass along so that their human resources departments can avoid pesky phone calls from moms and dads.

How sad is that?