With the start of a new academic year -- and a new crop of freshmen leaving home for the first time -- comes the now-inevitable round of articles  about the parents who have a little too much trouble  letting go  (nor does Inside Higher Ed claim  to be excepted from the trend ). Are the ties that bind really growing tighter each year? And if they are, what does it mean, and should we be worried?
In their new book, The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up  (Free Press), Barbara K. Hofer and Abigail Sullivan Moore argue that, thanks to the exponential proliferation of communicative technologies such as cell phones, e-mail, Skype, Facebook, and more, college students really are more in touch with their parents than ever before -- and that what constitutes a "normal" amount of contact is recalibrated (upward) with each passing year.
In The iConnected Parent, Hofer, a professor of psychology at Middlebury College, and Moore, a journalist, describe the results of their extensive and diverse research, and offer guidance for parents who want to offer support to their college-going kids without becoming the stuff of helicopter-parent legend -- or keeping their offspring from becoming mature and fully functioning adults.
Inside Higher Ed interviewed the two authors by e-mail.
Q: What does it mean to be an "iConnected parent"?
Hofer and Moore: It means that you frequently connect with your child via laptop, cell phone, Facebook, texting, Skype, or other digital means. This ability to connect 24/7 confers both disadvantages and benefits. Parents and kids may communicate too frequently with each other, robbing the child of opportunities to grow — making their own decisions and taking responsibility for their own behavior — and keeping parents from moving onto the next chapter in their lives. Our expectation of being able to stay in touch so easily also makes some parents and kids anxious when they can’t connect when a cell phone is lost or out of power. On the other hand, parents and kids can use this ability to stay connected in more positive ways, with parents encouraging their kids’ steps towards adulthood while keeping the lines of communication open.
Q: What sort of research did you do for this book?
Hofer: I conducted a set of studies over a four-year period — with Middlebury College undergraduates as an integral part of the research team — that included focus groups and web-based surveys with undergraduates, recent graduates, and parents. We began by studying Middlebury students during the transition to college and were surprised by how often they were in contact with their parents compared to how often they said they expected to be in contact with their parents. We then expanded the study to all four years of college, not only with Middlebury students, but with a random stratified sample of University of Michigan students. The surveys include not only frequency, mode, and content of contact, as well as who initiated the contact, but also a battery of psychological assessments about autonomy, self-regulation, parental regulation, procrastination, satisfaction with college, and relationships with parents. We did a follow-up study with students 1-2 years after college to examine these same issues following graduation.
Moore: I interviewed more than 100 parents and students who were ethnically, economically and geographically diverse; they also represented schools that were public and private, large and small. I interviewed a core group of students in depth several times over a two-year span to see how they felt about being in constant contact with their parents and how it affected them, their college experience, and later, their work life.
I also interviewed scores of educators and administrators in higher education, including deans, professors, attorneys, housing and residence life officials, writing center staff, honor code officials, and career counselors. In addition, I interviewed parents, educators, social workers, and guidance counselors at the high school, middle and elementary school levels, as well as coaches, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, family communication experts, learning disability experts, and parenting advocates. I also interviewed other national researchers to provide context for mental health issues on campus. For the work chapter, I interviewed a diverse group of employers, managers, young employees, staffing firms, human resource associations, and employer group associations.
Q: What were some of your most striking findings?
Hofer: We found that college students were in contact with their parents an average of 13.4 times per week, with no meaningful difference by year in school or by institution, and with only a small gender difference. Students report that they initiate nearly as much of the contact as do parents (6 versus 7 contacts per week). They also report that they have more contact with moms than dads, and more than a quarter report they would like more contact with dad. We found no differences by SES [socioeconomic status], region, distance from home, or secondary school background. This frequency of contact seems to be a pervasive phenomenon.
Students who were in the most frequent contact were the least autonomous. Some of these students have parents who are using the calls to continue regulating their behavior as they did in high school, reminding them what and when to study, for example, and these students are the least satisfied with the parental relationship, describing it as controlling and conflictual. Others report a “best friend” phenomenon with their parents, wanting to talk to them daily to tell them everything that is going on, and these students seem to be trading off autonomy for closeness. By contrast, there are families with moderate contact who have learned how to maintain a connection but in healthy ways that permit growing independence of thought and behavior.
Students who are self-regulated (rather than being regulated by parents), those who take responsibility for their own studying behavior and monitor their own learning, were happiest in college, happiest with the parental relationship, and had higher GPAs. By contrast, continued parental regulation of behavior during college was correlated with procrastination and frequency of contact. Some of the ways in which students say that parents continue to regulate their kids’ behavior are getting copies of their syllabuses and reminding them when and where to study, helping to rewrite papers, and calling to wake them up on days when they have tests. Our survey results showed that 19% of the students in the study reported sending papers home to their parents for editing and proofing; given that this is self-report data, the number is likely higher.
Moore: My reporting suggests there’s a class divide in terms of the benefits that iConnected kids reap, as those with college-educated parents are most likely to benefit from emailing a paper home for mom and dad to edit before turning it into professors as their own. The first-generation students to whom I spoke or professors told me about saw this as cheating. Many of these well-off kids did not. They simply saw it as one more resource to which they had access.
My reporting also suggests some super-connected students are ambivalent about being so close to their parents. Others seem comfortable with their dependence on mom and dad, oblivious to its effects. Some of the more independent kids are at times scornful of these less autonomous students and their dependence on mom and dad.
The close connection between parents and their college students carries over into the work force, with parents accompanying kids to interviews or trying to help negotiate salaries. Parents are also pushing the boundaries of standard business etiquette. For example, in lieu of a spouse or significant other, some young employees bring their mom to the office holiday party, summer barbecue or on a business trip. One young employee got reprimanded for spending too much time on Facebook while at work. His excuse? He had to respond constantly to mom’s comments via Facebook.
Although college students report calling moms more than dads, cell phones are shaking up the way families have traditionally communicated, with mom now not always serving as communication central for all family news, including that from their college students. Many kids are now calling whichever parent they can contact first — even if they typically call mom more often. As a result, dads are getting more calls and opening up new avenues of communication with sons and daughters — something that many kids desire with their dads. The fact that more dads are getting more involved in child-rearing than dads in the past is also fomenting this shift in how families communicate.
Q: The book discusses "the most common blunders that well-meaning parents make." Can you list a few of them? What are some signs that a parent has gone too far?
Hofer and Moore:
- Using the cell phone to provide wake up calls for their kids or to remind them of an upcoming test or paper.
- Asking for copies of a student’s syllabuses in order to provide reminders about due dates.
- Expecting to hear from their child every day. (And calling the college in a panic if they don’t.)
- Using their child’s e-mail to register their child for classes and conduct other college business.
- Editing their child’s college papers and assignments by email.
- Responding to a child’s complaint about a professor by contacting the professor.
- Become overly involved in the ups and downs of a child’s social or romantic life.
- Reading a child’s Facebook site constantly and asking personal questions or making judgments about the content.
- Getting involved in a child’s ordinary roommate conflicts by contacting the roommate, the roommate’s parents, resident adviser, or other college housing official.
Q: You write that in some cases this overzealous parenting continues even after a student's college graduation. What does that look like? Can you give a few examples?
Moore: Some parents become overly involved in their child’s job search, filling out applications for them, writing their résumés, accompanying them to job fairs, even job interviews. Some parents call their child’s manager to report a "sick day" or to discuss a performance appraisal.
Hofer: What surprised me is the continuing dependence on parents during these years for even mundane information – how to boil spaghetti, sort laundry, organize their apartments. In addition, we found a strong correlation between parental involvement in decision making during college and similar behaviors after college. Based on student reports, it appears that the parents who took a strong role in steering their students toward particular classes and majors are the same ones pressing them toward specific jobs and careers and graduate programs. Basically, technology now makes it possible for these practices to continue unabated.
Q: The iConnected Parent is full of advice for parents who'd like to achieve the right level of involvement during their child's college years. What are some of the most important suggestions you can give?
Hofer and Moore:
- Before your child leaves for college, decide together how often to talk. A longer talk on the weekend and a few brief spontaneous calls or texts messages during the week may work well.
- Be mindful of who is initiating communication: let your child take the lead. If your child sounds annoyed when you call, back off.
- Before you pick up the phone, decide who will benefit from this call: you or your child.
- Give your kids space to lead their own lives at college, and know the boundaries. Respect their privacy.
- Know how to recognize and respond to venting. Listen, but don’t rush to problem solve
- Use non-controlling language – avoid "should" and "must" – and learn to listen without leaping to judgment or solution.
- Don’t be afraid to let your kids stumble or be unhappy temporarily.
- Know the college resources – writing centers, tutors, etc. – and encourage your child to use those resources instead of relying on you.