Managing Mom and Dad

For July’s “Burning Question,” I thought we’d take a look at something that countless among you — from the 16’s to the 26’s, the artists to the accountants — have brought up: parents. You’ve read the stories, pieces with such encouraging titles as, ‘Helicopter’ parents hover when kids job hunt,” and, “Do ‘helicopter moms’ do more harm than good?” There’s even a Wikipedia entry for this new phenomenon.

But jokes aside, as anyone who read this recent New York Times story — about parents extending and overextending themselves to fund their adult children’s lives — can attest, they do it because they love. And that makes it a bit difficult for anyone — child, recruiter, or reporter — to dismiss them altogether. So if you can’t just say, “Mom and Dad, get a life,” what exactly can you do to keep your parents happy and your dignity intact?

To get some perspective, I turned to Dan Black, Ernst & Young’s Americas director of campus recruiting. Why Black? Aside from working with hundreds of Gen Yers and having young children himself, he’s also dealt with his fair share of parents. So with his expertise and my own first-hand experience, we put together a little five-step plan to recovering from that widespread Gen Y affliction, excessive parental involvement. (And before we go any further, let me just say that, obviously, this doesn’t apply to every parent or even to every Gen Yer, as many of us didn’t have parents who could be this involved. But we’re talking about the other set here, the ones who get maligned by the Wall Street Journal and whatnot.)

Step 1. Acknowledge the problem.
Some people will tell you that parents have always loved their kids, and while that’s true, there’s some pretty good anecdotal evidence that it’s gone a bit beyond that. Take the story Black told me when we first met while I was reporting our Gen Y story, which had a long section on parents, too.

Last summer, at E&Y’s intern conference, which brings about 2,000 interns together, someone called looking for the person in charge. “I pick up the phone and it’s an older gentleman who says, ‘Yes, I’m so-and-so’s dad. Who’s this’?” Black says, laughing as he pantomimes looking at a phone in confusion.

Turns out it was a concerned father whose daughter had failed to call the night before. Mom entered the fray, too, and though Black gave them every assurance that the company tracked all the interns — this was only day two of the four-day conference, and little so-and-so was probably in a seminar or team-building event somewhere — he eventually set out to find the girl. “You can only imagine the face on this poor young woman when I pulled her out of her activity and said, ‘Your parents called and they need you to call them back. They’re just worried about you.’ She was mortified.”

That might sound extreme, but I bet in a similar situation, it probably wouldn’t have taken my own mom long to give Black a ring. And even in circumstances less dire, Black says he hears from lots of parents who want to know what their recent grads should be doing to apply to E&Y — and even what colleges their high-schoolers should be considering so that they’ll one day be considered by E&Y.

It may be loving, but it’s not normal — or okay.

Step 2. Recognize your own complicity.
Ask yourself, why do parents do this? It isn’t as if they don’t have other things to do. And having already invested so much time, energy, and of course, money in bringing their children up, one might expect them to take a step back happily. But it’s precisely because they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, 18+ years, and every last nerve to raise us that they are concerned.

But what have you done to help alleviate the situation? Whether you’re the sort of kid who cringes at your parents’ meddling, or the sort who only pretends to cringe while secretly welcoming the meddling, you are absolutely to blame for their behavior.

Have you kept them in the proverbial loop about your job search activities? Do they have any reason to believe, based upon the evidence you’ve given them, that you’re even doing any job-searching? “I could’ve told my parents till the cows came home, ‘Don’t worry, I’m on the job hunt’,” Black says, “but they didn’t know what that meant until I came and showed them my resume and talked about the career fairs I’d attended. That’s what put them at ease.”

And if you have involved them, but to the point where you’re dependent upon them, that’s no good either. “I remember I was going through a resume with a student once,” Black says, “and I told him this looks really great. And he said, ‘Well, my mom put it together for me’.” Taking advantage of your parents’ goodwill and worry for you doesn’t help them trust you, and it certainly doesn’t help you learn how to navigate this process yourself — or win you any fans in recruiting.

Step 3. Talk to your parents.
Once it’s clear that Mom and Dad are too involved, whatever the reason, you’ve got to talk them out of it. Many of us don’t want to have this conversation, but Black points out that it’s not unlike those days in middle school when your parents would drive you to a friend’s house, and you’d request a dropoff a few blocks away. That’s pretty much when it stopped being cool to have your parents doing everything for you.

So sit down with your parents and have the discussion up front. Show them the evidence that you can — and already are — doing this on your own. A lot of the time, they’re just worried that you’re too busy to be searching effectively, so letting them know that you already are goes a long way.

And tell them how much involvement is appropriate. “There’s no shortage of information about parents getting involved and how that can be perceived in the workforce,” Black says, “so making a parent aware that that this could be negative despite their intentions can make a difference.” When Black gets calls from parents, he says he offers counsel, but also points out that another recruiter might not look upon this sort of call as kindly. “Many parents are surprised: ‘I’m just trying to help,’ ‘I thought it’d be great to show the child is from good stock, with a caring family,’ ‘I want to make sure they do well’,” he says. “And I have to tell them that’s true, but we’d really rather see that motivation on the child’s part, because we’re working with the child.”

But Black shouldn’t be having that conversation with your parents. You should. It all amounts to a promise that they’ll get a great return on their investment — in you — without having to do all the work themselves. And they deserve that; they’ve done enough already.

Step 4. Keep talking to your parents.
With some parameters established, parents can be a wonderful resource. They’ve lived a long time, and many have experience in the corporate world, so talking through the job search process with them — about issues like deciding which career is right for you — can be extremely beneficial.

Be proactive about sharing information with them — E&Y, for instance, has a “Parent Pack” of information that’s for candidates, but packaged to share with parents — and let them give you feedback. As long as you make the big calls. As Black puts it, “Take the advice you need, and leave the rest. Ultimately, it’s your life and your career, so you need to make the decisions.”

Step 5. Remember this when you become a parent.
This shift in parenting has been happening over the course of many years, and if we were coddled, well, just imagine how much coddling we’re likely to do with our own kids. So remember all this hoopla when you’re considering doing your eight-year-old’s science project for him.

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