Halloran: There’s more nuance to millennials’ “sensitivity”


Sara Halloran, Columnist

Lately a movement has emerged blaming “helicopter parenting,” parents who are over-involved with and overprotective of children, for the struggles of new college students to assimilate to university life. These critics claim over-parenting has effectively crippled young adults emotionally, leaving them hapless in the face of increased independence in college.

While over-parenting definitely exists — and is definitely irritating — the need to find a scapegoat for higher rates of mental illness and increased “political correctness” in college students is based more in fear of social change than genuine concern. There are larger factors contributing to these higher rates — the pressure-cooker environment at high schools and colleges, often inadequate mental health support systems at universities, a higher cultural sensitivity in newer generations — that these critics have chosen to downplay or outright ignore. The image of weak, ineffectual kids with egos stroked by their obsessive parents is simply easier to embrace than the reality that it is the system, not the character of college students, that has changed so dramatically over the past decades.

The notion of the oversensitive, completely helpless college student is a fallacy. It’s true that many college students are constantly overwhelmed, and some struggle with mental illness. It only takes one look at the high school landscape in which these students are raised to understand why. To keep up with their peers, students at or near the top are forced to stretch themselves thin — join as many extracurriculars as possible and take as many AP classes as they can fit into their schedules. Any one misstep could mean the difference between receiving an acceptance letter for which they had worked their whole lives and rejection. With this background, it’s no wonder that so many students have such a crippling fear of failure. Yet it’s important to remember that the students who come out of high school like this — burnt out, anxious and too emotionally exhausted to socialize — are the same students who kept themselves at an elite level for four years. They might be broken, but if they possessed the savvy to get into a so-called “good” school, they are far from helpless.

This is where “helicopter parents” come into the equation. I believe many of these social critics overestimate just how much parents are even able to be involved in students’ live by the time they reach high school. It is likely true that, most of the time, behind a successful student is an involved parent. However, these parents, for the most part, are likely trying to fill in the cracks they see forming in their stressed-out children. The parents who harass their children’s teachers to change their grades and intervene in every aspect of their children’s lives are, from what I have seen, definite outliers. Besides, the children of these parents are usually embarrassed by this behavior, as teenagers are wont to be.

Increasing rates of depression and anxiety are also blamed on the lack of mental fortitude of my generation and our parents, as if mental illness is a form of weakness. Although the high-pressure environment is certainly a breeding ground for mental illness, the uptick in mentally ill students can also be attributed to greater awareness for depression and anxiety — students whose grades are dropping may now be recognized as suffering from depression, whereas 30 years ago, they might have been marked “problem children.” Despite what some critics might think, this is a decidedly positive development. Greater cultural sensitivity, i.e. a lack of patience for intolerant language and a greater compassion for those who have a mental illness, is an indicator that society is actually moving in the right direction.

The entire theory that children are goaded into believing they’re special by a constant influx of praise and participation medals is insulting to their intelligence. Children are perceptive enough to know that if everyone in the room has a trophy, they’re not special for having one too. Fear of failure comes from the high-pressure environment in which failure is not an option, not because children’s heads are filled with empty praise from their teachers and parents. In the end, you can’t have it both ways — if you don’t want a classroom full of college kids flooding their professor with questions concerning minutia about their essay assignment, you can’t make it such a big deal in high school that every essay return an “A.” If you don’t want parents to intrude in their children’s lives, make their children’s lives possible to handle on their own. Every generation loves to believe it is better than its children — mentally tougher, more capable, more ambitious. It’s easier to believe that “millennials” and those who reared them are inferior to previous parent-child pairings than to actually confront the systems that emotionally drain students before they even enter college.

Sara Halloran is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.