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Science shows why helicopter parenting leads to unmotivated college-bound

Spelunker rescue is not same as helicopter parenting
Spelunker rescue is not same as helicopter parenting
Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

The more parents hover over their children doing assignments and snow plough their children’s obstacles aside, the less likely their offspring are to self-motivate, according to Dr Shimi Kang in Saturday’s South China Morining Post. That’s a big problem for those following the helicopter parenting style because it takes teens’ inner drive for them to be vested in the college process. The best chance of success comes when students commit to earning a degree on time and in an affordable way.


Science is showing “many parents today are sabotaging their children's inner drive,” according to Dr Shimi Kang, medical director for child and youth mental health in Vancouver and the author of The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into A Tiger.

She has studied the science of motivation and matched it to parenting styles and biology. She concludes,

Humans are naturally motivated through the biologic release of the powerful neurochemical dopamine. The human brain's positive motivation feedback loop works like this: do something good for your survival, receive a positive reward via your dopamine pathways, experience well-being, gain the self-motivation to do something good for your survival again.

Intrinsic motivators

The intrinsic motivators are sleep, play, exploration, social bonding and altruism, Dr Shimi Kang writes. “We are hardwired towards these activities because they allow us to become comfortable with uncertainty, take risks, exchange ideas, solve problems and innovate,” she adds.

Intrinsic motivators are powerful and merge the skills of acquiring knowledge and socialization. This leads to the ability to adapt, think creatively, acquire self-confidence and make good decisions.

Parent role

In order to cultivate self-motivation in the college-bound, parents should “balance taking over our kids' lives with providing them guidance and direction. We need to stop overscheduling and overprotecting them,” Dr Shimi Kang recommends.

College experts agree. “Parents are unquestionably a critical component to a student’s college transition, but it’s important to delineate what parental action is helpful and what may be detrimental in the admissions process,” writes college planning expert and higher education researcher Andrew Belasco.

Forming a parent-student team to brainstorm ideas, divide tasks and provide support is a good beginning when families start the college process. There is a lot to learn from researching colleges and financial aid options. Students may take the lead on forming a college list, speaking with college staff on visits, and applying for scholarships. Parents may help them organize, manage their time and help them find answers to their questions so they can reach their goals.

“Often, the greatest motivating factor can be to prove to yourself it’s possible to achieve a particular goal,” College parent expert Suzanne Shaffer has found. She attributes her own son’s self-motivation and success of not only graduating but graduating summa cum laude with honors to this factor.

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