Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success, by Laura T. Hamilton

Book of the week: ‘Helicopters’ or ‘bystanders’? Your folks’ behaviour can govern more than grades, says Hazel Christie

August 11, 2016
Female students being photographed by their mothers and sister before senior prom
Source: Getty

Nothing beats a piece of good empirical sociology, as the data suck you in and tell their own compelling story. Writing well in this style is an art form, and few people manage to pull it off. In Parenting to a Degree, Laura Hamilton does so beautifully. Here, the focus is on undergraduates in the US and the forms of support that their parents offer them as they make their way through their degrees. The narrative is seamless, using the stories of the students’ lives to unpack the myriad ways in which social inequalities are produced, and reproduced, within higher education.

The opening is arresting and sets the style and tone for the rest of the book. We are invited to a student dormitory at “Midwest University” to join the ranks of freshers and their parents on “move-in day”. Some parents are busy managing every aspect of their child’s arrival; others are more perfunctory, leaving their children to sort themselves out and thereby help to foster that sense of independence associated with the transition to undergraduate life. Still others are absent altogether, because for their children independence has already begun. Hamilton is fascinated by these differences in parenting styles and what they tell us about the important role that family plays in college women’s success.

Yes, you read that right – this is a book about women, about daughters, and the support that they receive from their families. And it’s based on a very particular set of women at that. There are 41 of them in Hamilton’s study, all studying at Midwest, the top-ranking public university in its state. They come from across the class hierarchy and are studying a wide range of majors, and as the book unfolds, we see the different trajectories that they take through college. Although Hamilton undertook ethnography, as well as longitudinal interviews with students, the data discussed here is based primarily on interviews that she conducted with parents. Consequently, this book is a very timely addition to research on parenting, which too often stops at the college gates.

At the heart of Parenting to a Degree is what Hamilton calls the “terrible paradox” of modern parenting. On the one hand, educational and professional success is predicated on parental support. It requires moderate to extensive financial, emotional and logistical support from families throughout higher education and on into the labour market. This can drain parents’ monetary resources and psychological reserves and increases dependence among young adults. On the other hand, it can also be a route to increased inequalities. Hamilton is exercised by if and how the expectation of building parental labour and money into a university degree, when not all parents are able to offer the same level of assistance, is implicated in the reproduction of class inequalities. As she so ably demonstrates, this is indeed the case.

In the book’s first half, we are introduced to the three parenting approaches prevalent at Midwest. There are the helicopters – those much-reviled media figures of 21st-century parenting – who carefully orchestrate their daughters’ social and academic experiences, and who do not hesitate to intervene in dealings with their educational institutions. Some one-third of the families in Hamilton’s study fell into this category. Her analysis is careful, and she draws a distinction between two subspecies of helicopter parents. There are the “pink helicopters”, who invest in their daughters’ social activities, consumption and sorority status, and who hope to increase their chances of marriage to a wealthy man. And then there are the “professional helicopters”, who put their resources into helping their daughters build a career through investing in their human capital. What is common to both kinds of helicopter parenting is how costly and resource-intensive they are, which means that this approach is open only to upper-class and upper-middle-class parents.

Then there are the 12 parents in Hamilton’s study whom she characterises as “paramedics”. Here, the emphasis is on encouraging daughters to achieve independence, but under low-risk conditions. This is the one category where students are drawn from across the class spectrum. Parents assume that daughters can manage their own academic decisions as well as the risks of the party scene. What is also clear is that they are prepared to intervene when things go wrong for their daughters, and thus they provide a safety net for them.

And finally there are the “bystanders”, the remaining 12 parents who have minimal involvement in the academic and social spheres of university life. These families are from lower- middle- and working-class backgrounds and are largely prevented from intervening by resource constraints and a lack of familiarity with higher education. They are not in a position to micromanage their daughters or to offer constructive criticism. Crucially, the bystanders assume that Midwest will provide a complete package of support for their daughters. Unfortunately, this proves not to be the case, and this contributes to the markedly negative experiences that many of the bystanders’ daughters have as undergraduates.

In the book’s second half, we learn about the consequences of these parenting approaches, and return to the dynamics of the “terrible paradox” of modern parenting that Hamilton began with. To my delight, the pink helicopters get their comeuppance. An emphasis on partying means that their daughters end up with easy majors and poor grade point averages, neither of which translates into success in the labour market. Their parents are obliged once again to intervene and use their networks and resources to support their daughters in the pursuit of an upper-middle-class lifestyle. To their horror and despair, their children remain dependent on them well beyond the point of graduation. The offspring of the professional helicopters and the paramedics turn out to have similar outcomes, with higher GPAs that translate into good labour market outcomes. It is the children of the bystanders who suffer most, and Hamilton describes them as being “failed by the university”. Although their parents had high hopes for the support and resources that Midwest would provide for their daughters, these hopes prove to be misplaced and we see the significant barriers to these young women succeeding at Midwest. The daughters of the bystanders have the lowest GPAs, and they tend to churn through different majors and take longer to complete their degrees.

Parenting to a Degree provides a clear understanding of how class advantages are reproduced in and through higher education. Parenting beyond the age of 18 matters more than ever because how parents approach their children’s undergraduate years shapes the life chances of young adults, and can set them on markedly different trajectories. But what this study also reveals is the extent to which universities depend, in part, on the availability of parental support and labour to ensure that students successfully complete their degrees. Hamilton ably demonstrates that we too often see degree success as based on individual merit when, in reality, it is driven by the nature of the partnerships between families and the universities, and that too often students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds find themselves struggling to make their way with the least help.

Hazel Christie is lecturer in university learning and teaching, University of Edinburgh.

Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success
By Laura T. Hamilton
University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £17.50
ISBN 9780226183367, 3534 and 9780226183671 (e-book)
Published 6 June 2016

The author

Veronica Adrover

“I was born in Indiana and grew up in the suburbs of a large city that petered out into farmland. The pace of life was fairly slow. The state is conservative, and as I was growing up, it felt a bit stifling. California, where I live now, is a better fit for me,” says Laura Hamilton, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced.

Neither of Hamilton’s parents graduated from college, “but they were able to support me financially throughout my college years. I was, thus, a child of ‘supportive bystander’ parents who wanted to help, but were often not familiar enough with college to actively advise or intervene.

“Thankfully, I attended a small liberal arts college, DePauw University, where academic faculty became my partners on the path to graduate school. I ate dinners at my professors’ houses and went on an archaeological dig in Turkey with a professor couple. I received the kind of tailored guidance and support that is priceless for first-generation students who do not have access to this at home. Looking back, I think I was probably very ambitious, eager and naive. I had no idea that I was about to embark on decades of research about higher education.”

UC Merced, Hamilton says, is an institution with “a significant low-income and first-generation population. It opened its doors in 2005, as the first (and, given cuts to federal and state funding for higher education, potentially the last) US public university built in the 21st century.”

It does “a fairly remarkable job of helping students with significant financial challenges, as well as those who face barriers that other student populations simply do not – such as students who are undocumented and do not have US citizenship. There are things that all universities can do to improve circumstances for disadvantaged students, but I am proud of the work that goes on here,” she says.

Karen Shook


Print headline: How the girls in pearls get on

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