Why Penny Thinks Paying For Your Kid’s College Is Helicopter Parenting

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Dear Rich,

As you may have surmised by now, given our income and the amount of student loan debt we have, we don’t have the means to, nor do we plan on funding our children’s (and we have four of them) college education.

But, that’s a good thing. Because even if we could, we wouldn’t do it anyway.

Here’s why:

You know the term helicopter parenting, right? (Go Finance Yourself talked about it in a recent blog post, if you need to bring yourself up to speed.) Basically, it’s overseeing your kids, to the point where you’re like a helicopter hovering overhead, swooping in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble. This style of parenting gives children very little independence, doesn’t allow for developing autonomy, and can do a real number on the kid’s confidence.

And I think that paying for a kid’s college education is one of the biggest forms of helicopter parenting out there.

Your whole “building a legacy” thing seems a bit (how do I say this in a nice way?)… controlling.

Developing independence and autonomy is one of the most important things in a person’s life. Paying for their own education encourages a child to take responsibility for their own lives, to do with it what they want, and to fully make it their own. If a parent is funding their education, they are taking all of that away from them.

Granted, I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be pretty sweet to have your college education paid for (believe me, I know, as we have $153,000 in student loan debt), but it does come at another price (loss of autonomy)… and that is a price that I would not want to pay.

But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t guide our children, that we shouldn’t have conversations with them about debt and careers and education and choices in life. Imparting our wisdom is all part of being a parent. That doesn’t mean we have to hold their hands every time they cross the street or when they’re taking college entrance exams. Eventually, we’re going to have to let them go on to make their own choices and mistakes and triumphs and all the rest of it.

I’ve always liked this quote by Kahlil Gibran:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

If one of my kids comes to me with a problem, sometimes (depending on what it is, of course), I’ll say: “It’s your life. What do you think?”

It’s a constant reminder that their lives are their paths to cultivate.

Another thing is that I have a bit of a bone to pick with this whole college education thing. You mentioned in a recent post about how you think that stocks are in a big fat bubble… well, I think that there is this big fat higher-education bubble that is going to burst anytime now as well.

Hedge-fund billionaire Peter Thiel said in an interview with the National Review:

Probably the only candidate left for a bubble — at least in the developed world (maybe emerging markets are a bubble) — is education. It’s basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money’s worth, objectively, when you do the math. And at the same time it is something that is incredibly intensively believed; there’s this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that’s what everybody’s doing.

Basically, it seems like the way higher education is being done now is not working. Colleges used to be a place where people would go to Learn for the Sake of Learning. Now, college has become a place where Everybody Has to Go to Get a Good Job. I think that’s dumb. I think it’s a broken system and I’m not entirely sure if going to college is the best option for most people.

I think there should be a complete overhaul in the education system. I think more businesses should offer specific training (the Wall Street Journal has an article about the possibility of merit badges being used in place of college degrees). Make more occupations require trade-based training instead of a college degree.

Blogger Jennifer Fulwiler wrote a great article about the end of college as we know it and the future of education. She writes:

I believe that this is the fault line on which the higher education system will split: New organizations will be created that offer workplace credentials, and traditional colleges will be free to research and teach without worrying about job training. And this will be a great thing. Our grandkids will be able to save time and money by getting badges targeted to the specific areas in which they work. And if they do go to college, they will be able to enjoy a wonderful concept that has been almost entirely lost by our modern education system: To learn simply for the sake of learning.

But, where does this leave us for where we’re at now?

In one sense, as I was saying, I don’t want my kids to be a part of this broken educational system, but in another sense, what other options do they have? The system is not fixed yet.

With my husband, even though chiropractic is probably an occupation that would benefit from an apprenticeship-type model of education, that was not a choice we had. We had to play the game. He had to go through 8+ years of education (undergraduate + doctorate degrees) to become what he wanted to become because there was no other way to do it.

I was talking to my 11 year old son the other day. I was in the process of registering him for his next year of school. Even at this age, I encourage my kids to be thoughtful and autonomous about their education, so I give them a choice if they want to attend school every year. (I am kind of an unschooler at heart, meaning that I think kids can learn and grow without formal schooling, but I send my kids to a 3-day a week Montessori Homeschool Academy because, as they get older, it turns out that they DO want to learn and grow at an exponential rate, and that I am lazy, and this school provides them the resources and wherewithal to do so.)

With asking him, I also shared with him about how, if we imagine All There Is To Know In The World as a pie graph, what they learn in school makes up only a small portion of that pie, and, hey, isn’t it crazy how everyone in school is learning the SAME piece of that pie…

And what if what you need to know in your life is a different slice of that pie? Then why are you spending all your time on that other piece?

So, when I asked him if he wanted to go to school next year or if he wanted to stay home, he said he wanted to go because he wants to learn what everybody else is learning. He doesn’t want to be left out.

With that conversation, my son taught me something a little something: There is a certain value in learning what everybody else is learning, in terms of being a part of the culture and society that we live in. Shared knowledge. I get that.

But, ultimately, I want to encourage my kids to find that other piece of the pie (or maybe their piece is part or an extension of the traditional schooling piece) and to run with it. There is so much to learn and know in the world, and I want them to find their thing. We are all born with gifts and interests and talents and abilities. If we pay attention to what those are and to what is calling us and driving us forward, I think that is a recipe for a good and happy life and a meaningful education.

After they find that piece, they can figure out what they want to do with it… whether it’s a trade school, a traditional college education, an apprenticeship, a job… whatever it is.

It’s up to them.



28 Replies to “Why Penny Thinks Paying For Your Kid’s College Is Helicopter Parenting”

  1. Penny — we will definitely need to chat about this more. I’ll just say for now I found a couple of your quotes funny. Peter Thiel talking about school is funny — he was a valedictorian in high school and has 3 degrees from Stanford. I’m sure that never helped him. Ha.

    And this: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

    Uh… ok, in that case, would “Life’s longing” mind waking up with my sons at 5am tomorrow? Oh, and “Life’s longing,” don’t forget to drive them to preschool, or better yet just tell them to drive themselves. Thanks “Life’s longing”!
    Rich @ pennyandrich.com recently posted…Rich’s Plan To Build A Generational Family Legacy. Uh, Yeah, In 3 Easy Steps!My Profile

  2. Interesting post; as the parent of a now-17-year-old, I’ve been appalled for years at the infantilizing of our children and early 20-somethings. However, just as I’m assuming you cover the costs for your children’s Montessori classes, I cover my daughter’s college fees. She entered university at the age of 15, and I absolutely couldn’t see harnessing her to student loan debt at her age. Graduate school will be on her dime, however! Just a reminder that situations differ, and everything is not always what it appears on the surface.

    And, unschooling?? Love it- we’re all about self-directed and parent-supported education at my house…since learning doesn’t happen only between 8 and 3! 😊

      1. Thanks, Rich, but all the credit goes to my daughter- absolutely loves learning and is a steamroller when it comes to pursuing her interests. She’s a pretty talented writer (her professors back up my parental bias!) but realizes she has to make a living, so she’s using her writing skills to pursue a major in journalism, along with a major in history. Her goal is to pay the bills as an investigative journalist, while she continues her creative writing as a sideline. Thanks for asking!

  3. Interesting perspective! I must admit I struggle with this subject sometimes, specifically whether I should pay for college or not for my kid. On the one hand, I put myself through school, and the struggle of doing that helped shape my character and resilient nature. The experience pushed me to despise things like debt, and forced me to seek out a higher income to dig myself out. It was a strong motivator.

    On the other hand, I chose my degree purely on the basis of income potential and job guarantee. As a result, although I’m in a high paying career today, I can’t wait to ditch it. I didn’t get the chance to pursue a passion. It’s possible I wouldn’t have discovered one, but the opportunity wasn’t even there.

    Shouldn’t my sacrifice benefit my daughter some way? I don’t want my daughter to have to compromise the way I did. She should be able to choose her path without the constraints I had, but will giving her that choice lead to a less resilient character as a result?

    Someday I’ll be able to answer those questions (maybe with another post). Perhaps the compromise is to allow her to experience some adversity, and then surprise her with a loan payoff after she’s experienced it. But then she could resent me for it.

    At the end of the day, you can only do what you feel is right for your kids, and that’s largely shaped by your own experiences.

    Thanks for the post Penny….sorry for the long comment
    Max Your Freedom recently posted…Net Worth: It’s not the Size that MattersMy Profile

    1. Here’s the thing about life… we’re never going to be able to predict all the outcomes. We’re all just doing the best we can, right? Would your sacrifice benefit your daughter? Maybe. Maybe not. I try not to get too hung up on it. Rich, on the other hand, tends to analyze possibilities to the nth degree. Thanks for reading!
      Penny @ pennyandrich.com recently posted…Why Penny Thinks Paying For Your Kid’s College Is Helicopter ParentingMy Profile

    2. Max — these are great points and I think some decisions will become clearer as the kids grow and we have a better idea of what they need to develop and succeed.

      Penny is correct that I tend to analyze possibilities in order to tip the odds in my favor. The part I’m thinking of now is whether or not a parent paying actually leads to a negative outcome? In other words, is there any real proof that parents paying actually leads to less resilience in a person’s life (not good), or does it just lead to less debt (good)?

      One part I’m fairly sure of is this — show me a room of 1,000 people without higher education, and I’ll show you a room where a lot of people are struggling.
      Rich @ pennyandrich.com recently posted…Rich’s Plan To Build A Generational Family Legacy. Uh, Yeah, In 3 Easy Steps!My Profile

  4. I’ve decided that I’m paying for my kids college, up to a specific reasonable point. I call it my “college compact”, the agreement I made with myself and my kids on what I will/won’t pay for, and what the guidelines are. Although I’m going to be helping, they have a role to play too-I tell them (at least the 13 and 9 year old) that we need to work together as a family to make this happen.

    I struggled and put myself through college working full time and going to school full time – I’d prefer my kids not go through that. If the education bubble bursts before they go, then that’s good news for my wallet!

  5. Very interesting post. I’ve been toying with the idea of my kids doing an online public school program that would allow them to do their schooling anywhere while also receiving the shared knowledge that they crave. I like your point of view on education and personally think that there has to be a better way. I kind of view traditional schooling the same way I view a traditional 9 to 5 job. For the most part, neither one is necessary anymore.

          1. Well, depending on their ages, I don’t care if my kids miss school. I’m of the unschooling mentality, especially for the younger ages. I, personally, am not a fan of online schools because it involves too much time in front of a computer. But, it could be a good option for some people, depending on their situations. I know a handful of people who do the online k-12 school thing and it works for them.
            Penny @ pennyandrich.com recently posted…Monthly Happiness Report: Rich Increases His Brain Waves By 0.0125 In March 2017My Profile

  6. First off let me say I do agree that college education is a bubble. I believe it will be way different in a decade, though I expect online education is the wave of the future. Major schools are starting to release online degrees that are indistinguishable from on site degrees. Sooner or later that’s going to take off and break college costs.

    As for paying for kids college, I disagree. There is only one thing required for people to have equal footing in this world, education. Education can take many forms, college is but one, but education none the less is key to opening up further opportunities. Sure College doesn’t teach you how to do your job, it is instead used as a yard stick when your young by companies to show you have the ability to learn. I don’t see that changing and I don’t want my kids at a disadvantage here. As such I will pay for their education, but anything beyond the bare minimum of education, roof, and food is up to them. All the niceties theyd like are on them. That’s the part where they learn to be on their own. Want a car, but it yourself. Want an Xbox (or whatever it will be 20 years from now), its all on them. Go to a party or join a fraternity, again same deal. Education and motivation are the two best gifts I can give my kids to prepare them for the real world.
    Full Time Finance recently posted…Game Theory and Personal FinanceMy Profile

  7. I am curious to know if the future will move to MOOC type courses where people learn at their own pace and colleges lose the grappling hook that they have.

    Plus I hated some of the undergrad courses I was required to take in order graduate. I can’t tell you a single composer that I learned in music appreciation or the intro to geology class that I took.

    But I can definitely tell you the mutual fund classes along with some other classes in my major I definitely remember.

    Hopefully someone breaks up the monopoly soon 🙂

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