I am a baby-boom parent with children in college. We baby-boomers, now in our pre-dotage, have become infamous on college campuses -- again -- this time for noisily hovering over our children as they try to make their ways in the world (see Wikpedia on “helicopter parents”). From my own bleak experience -- both professional and personal -- I can say with confidence that our children become adults not because of our involvement in their lives, but in spite of it.
Penny Rue, the University of Virginia’s dean of students, calls us “benign dictators.” We, who reacted against the enforced age hierarchy of our own dictatorial parents, have become instead oppressors whose rule is based on the illusion that we and our children are peers, Rue says. And the illusion is so strong, that our children are fooled into not claiming the birthright that we claimed at their age: personal autonomy.
This embrace of dependence is not surprising given the attitudes of contemporary college students toward their parents. At the University of Maryland at College Park, James M. Osteen, the assistant vice president for student affairs, writes, “I find that students and their parents generally have a much closer relationship in recent years as compared to earlier decades. Students are very likely to list their parents as significant role models; whereas in the past students might name people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.”
It is sweet and fine for your 5 year old to think of you as sainted and heroic, but for your 20 year old to have the same attitude should be worrying. Why don’t we hear self-help sages speaking of the problem of arrested development any more? Where are the Erik Eriksons of yesteryear?
Rue and Osteen see the positive side of parental involvement. Both judge today’s parental role as student advocates to be an invitation to college-parent partnerships that can benefit students. But they also recognize the dangers: Both Osteen and Rue note that with parents handling everything from roommate problems to purchasing airplane tickets, students cannot develop a sense of mastery and the confidence necessary to live on one’s own. Erikson might observe that such parental behavior deprives young people of their identities as autonomous and competent adults.
I learned my own necessary lesson about meddling in my children’s education probably too late, after the critical period of Eriksonian development -- when the second of my three children was in sixth grade. Before that, I would regularly become concerned and then incensed about some way or other schools were failing my children. So caught up in tilting at windmills, I did not devote a moment’s attention to the big picture -- to problems of other students, teachers, schools, or to my children’s educational needs beyond small and preoccupying slights.
This is how I learned my lesson: My child, a superior sort of girl, of course, seemed not to be doing any work, while at the same time was receiving good grades. At a teacher conference I complained/boasted that my daughter was not doing any work and getting good grades. I suppose I imagined that with the complaint, her brilliance would be more appreciated, and she would get the special attention that as an exceptional person she deserved. Sure enough, it got her more attention immediately. Her grades plummeted. She became discouraged. And until she enrolled in college and had only herself to please, she never again studied for a test or did a lick of homework. To this day, this is the story my children tell their friends to describe the sort of person their mother is. There is no living it down.
As a parent of two in college and one in graduate school, I get involved only in questions of spelling. They may beg me to advise about conditional clauses, but I stand firm. I do listen to complaints about roommates, but have learned that in this area as in most issues of personal relationships it is best to listen only.
If other parents would fail earlier in their micro-management careers, college educators would not have to grin and bear helpful advice from over-bearing parents who threaten to bury student affairs offices under ship-loads of constructive criticism. Student affairs professional regularly remark to novices, “You see all those students walking around with cell phones? They are not talking to friends. They are talking to their mothers.”
And what are these students telling their parents? What they want to hear: that the people who run colleges don’t know half as much as their parents do and that life on campus is hell. And then their parents get on their mobile phones and call administrators who, if they weren’t chained to their desks would run screaming from their shabby little offices each time a call from a parent were announced.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now -- as a parent and as a college administrator. These calls can generate a lot of negative emotion -- raising blood pressure of both parents and college administrators. The number of these calls increase exponentially every year. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2003, 16.6 million students were enrolled in college. I imagine that 16.6 million cell phones transmitting the troubled chatter of parents and children about what is going wrong in college must surely be capable of unbalancing the music of the spheres.
When I worked in a college president’s office, I often took calls from irate parents. I sometimes thought I felt the universe skipping a beat as they described the woes of their children in college: not being able to get into a popular (gut) class; wet, slippery floors in the bathroom; having to go to class in the snow/wind/rain; having an electrical box mounted outside their dorm room (which was sending out dangerous electrical waves); poor grades on tests studied for; having to study for tests over Thanksgiving break; having too short a Thanksgiving/Christmas/Summer break; administrators not doing something about hurt feelings caused by not being offered a place in a fraternity; not doing something about roommates having sex; not being allowed to cheat on exams; the president getting too tough on those who assault others, etc., etc.
Some parents would call already angry. Some would become angry when they realized that no matter how much they wanted it, changing the university was going to take longer than 24 hours. They became angrier and angrier as they were transferred from one office to another. The political science department would get calls from parents complaining about fully enrolled courses out of which their children were closed out. The department would pass the calls on to the provost’s office, which would pass it along to the president’s office. What did I do? I told these parents to write to their legislators about getting more funding for public universities. I pitied the next person they would talk to after getting off the phone with me.
Sometimes I think that my generation doesn’t much care about what we are trying to control. It is the existential act of exerting control that is important to us. Not going gently into that good night makes us forget ultimate truths. We may have short memories, but those we plague with our demands do not. Student affairs officers shake their heads and remember that baby boomers in their own youths had demonstrated for increased personal freedom, and had gotten rid of the college practice of in loco parentis. Now for their children, irony of ironies, they are demanding that it be put back.
In our 45-60 years we have been promiscuous and irrational in many of the issues we have raised our voices about. We got the U.S. out of Vietnam and, 30 years later, into Iraq. We started the sexual revolution, and now we vote for anti-birth control and anti-abortion politicians. We rejected our elders’ assertion of control over our lives and we put chokeholds on the lives of our children.
The time has come to think about the consequences of indiscriminately throwing our considerable middle-aged weight around. It seems to me we have to face some facts. First of all, we need to let our children grow up. Second, we need to realize that we can’t stop the world from turning, that the generation we bred will replace us, and that they need to be prepared to do so. Most of all, we need to grow up, grow old, shut up, and step aside.
Margaret Gutman Klosko is a writer based in Virginia.