Most Americans applaud the prison sentences given college admissions scandal parents like actor Felicity Huffman and “fixers” like tennis coach Michael Center for manipulating outrageous claims and exorbitant “donations” to get coveted college admissions for unqualified students. A new study hints that similar kinds of pressures start early,  are widespread, and are difficult for well-meaning educators to resist.

Last year’s college admissions scandal was shocking. But in a briefing report released by the Council on Contemporary Families, Indiana University’s Associate Professor Jessica McCrory Calarco shows that the roots of such excesses can be traced back to parent-teacher dynamics that are evident as early as elementary school. While not focusing on such extremes, Calarco’s report, When “Helicopters” Go to School: Who Gets Rescued and Who Gets Left Behind?, documents problems in ordinary elementary schools that carry the seeds of future abuses.                

Teachers and schools rely on helper helicopter parentsIn a three-year study, Calarco spent approximately 500 hours observing at a suburban elementary school, and interviewed 21 students, 24 parents, and 14 teachers and administrators. She documented how educators, trying to supplement unequal and inadequate resources for high-quality education, come to rely on a set of privileged helicopter parents who contribute substantial amounts of time and money to the school. These parental volunteers allow schools to offer enrichment activities and supplemental staffing they could not otherwise afford.

Some teachers are deferential, others just feel obligated to bend for these helper helicopters. Calarco shows how teachers’ and administrators’ dependence on these parents makes them yield to those who expect their children to receive special consideration as payback for the time and money they contribute. Some teachers willingly bend rules for these kids, reasoning that children whose parents don’t or can’t be highly involved in their education haven’t “earned” special consideration. Others, Calarco shows, feel compelled to violate their sense of what is fair and best for the students’ own development.

Don’t kid yourself: It isn’t the children of helicopter parents who suffer, it is the other students who are harmed. Most criticisms of helicopter parenting focus on how such parents hurt their own children by their over-protection and coddling. However, Calarco shows that the kids who actually get hurt by this are not the ones who gain an edge in their school records and college applications but the ones who don’t.

It is easy to blame ambitious, over-engaged moms, but helicopter parents aren’t so much a cause of inequality as a consequence. For the past forty years, economic inequality has grown: Benefits of economic growth have been gobbled up by the top ten percent, and the bottom half of the population has seen wages stagnate while costs of schooling have soared. Over this time, the intensity of parenting has increased—and parents with more resources are spending those on their children at an accelerating rate.

The policy recommendations aren’t complex. “Adequate and equitably distributed school funding (particularly if coupled with redistribution of funds raised by Parent-Teacher Organizations) has the potential to reduce schools’ dependence on higher-SES ‘helicopter’ parents,” Calarco writes. In America we have a deep belief that education leads to social change. This work shows such change could be towards equity, but has instead been towards growing, persistent inequality that leaves some children and their parents stymied in school and beyond. These inequalities exacerbate the unresolved racial and ethnic disparities that plague our education systems.

“It’s perfectly natural to want your kids to do the best they can,” Stephanie Coontz, CCF Director of Research, notes.“But in societies with high levels of economic inequality, parents often want them to do better than everyone else. And when schools are unequally funded and must rely on parents’ contributions of time and money, it creates patterns of entitlement and exclusion that pave the way for the abuses we have seen in the college admission scandals.”


Jessica McCrory Calarco, Associate Professor of Sociology at Indiana University,; Professor Calarco is author of Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.