If your child is in college, 'helicopter parenting' might not be such a bad idea

Andrea Rosenthal has a son at a university. She's a supportive and experienced mom, no more than that. She rejects any suggestion that she's a helicopter parent, a negative label for people who go too far to help their kids.

But the mother from Fairfax County, Virginia, also knows a great deal about higher education, and thinks college parents should not cut themselves off from what is happening. The advice she has been giving online to parents at the university her son attends is so good I want to share it, because it shows how parents can help their kids without overdoing it.

About 3 million people will start at U.S. colleges in the fall, one of the great challenges of their lives. Rosenthal's suggestions are geared toward students majoring in STEM - science, technology, engineering and math. I never took such subjects in college except for a celestial navigation course that essentially required no work.

Rosenthal recommends that students:

1. "Avoid drinking and video games. Those two habits combined with being away from home can be very distracting."

2. "Don't underestimate the time it takes to do well in math. There is a lot of self-teaching. The professor goes over the concept and presents a simple example, but the real learning comes when the student has to figure out the homework. . . . Do the problem again and again until it is really understood so when the test comes and there is a variation in the problem, it is immediately recognized."

3. "Do EVERY homework problem, even the ungraded ones."

4. "Realize that many exams are too long to complete in the time given. Get stuck on a question and you're sunk. Practice doing the easy ones first, then going back to the harder ones."

5. "Go to office hours for every professor, early on, whether you need help or not. When you DO need help, it's not the first time going. . . . It's a great way to develop relationships, so when an internship requires a recommendation, you have someone to ask."

6. "Don't be so fast to drop a class at the first bombed exam. Students panic. Go to office hours and understand why the grade was low. . . . One bad test doesn't mean you will not pass the class."

7. "Don't miss the withdrawal date if there really is a disaster."

8. "Don't buy into 'Cs get degrees.' They do NOT get internships. Some Cs are fine, but aim higher."

9. "Remember that the semester is finite. Sometimes you have to skip something to focus on studies."

10. "Be prepared for week 4 of school. Professors tend to give their first exams at the same time."

11. "Eat well, sleep, wash hands, wipe down doorknobs. Dorms are a germ factory."

And for parents she recommends:

"Don't fall for this kind of thinking: 'He's an adult now. You shouldn't be involved in that. Fly little birdie! He can learn only if he fails.' Nonsense. There are plenty of ways to learn besides failing. We all rely on each other. I remind my husband of things all the time, and he reminds me. . . . If you want to remind, give advice, even nag a little, don't let anyone else make you feel you shouldn't. Trust your instincts."

My view is: Shunning video games and drinking may be too hard. But her recommendation to parents is very wise, even if controversial. It may sound as though she is defending helicopter parenting, but she doesn't think so and neither do I. A 2007 study of 9,162 students by the National Survey of Student Engagement found that those whose parents were often in contact and frequently intervened on their behalf were more satisfied with their college experience and gained more in areas such as writing and critical thinking than other students.

We ought to consider redefining helicopter parenting. As Rosenthal says, we all need help sometimes. What's wrong with giving somebody, particularly your own child, a hand?