Parenting confessions of a college professor?

This story caught my eye last night:  “Parenting Secrets of a College Professor,” by Kathleen Volk Miller.  At first, I was thinking “right on” when I saw this:

My 20-year old daughter, Allison, who has her own apartment in Philadelphia, sent me a text the other day:  “I need socks and dandruff shampoo.” I laughed aloud and texted back, “I need deodorant and coffee filters.”

I had a fleeting thought that she was actually asking me to pick up those items for her, but I preferred to think we were playing a cellphone game. I try not to be a helicopter parent. Experience as a mother and professor has taught me how badly that can backfire.

Instead, I prefer a more hands-off approach, which came naturally. From the time Allison turned 18 something kicked in, and I simply no longer had any desire to know her work schedule or pick up her tampons. I remember wondering if this was as instinctual as nursing her or bundling her up when she was a baby.  But that’s not what I see at Drexel University, where I teach and where my daughters go to school.

Cue the stories of the other parents, the dreadful helicopter parents–the mother who demands a “proof of life” from a son studying (as it happens) in the library; the parents who transfer funds electronically into their children’s bank accounts at the behest of a text message asking for more cash; the parents who filled out their children’s college applications for them.  Clearly ridiculous behavior, amirite?

Well, not so fast–Miller then describes her style of parenting, with her two children who happen to be students at her university!  Just as universities and college professors do more for their students now than my professors did for me back in the day, so it seems that even parents who are trying not to be helicopter parents are still much more enmeshed in the daily lives of their college student children than my parents were 25 years ago:

Parents have a view into their children’s lives that was not possible in the past. That makes letting go virtually impossible, forgive the pun. I spoke with a mother recently who said if it were not for Twitter, she wouldn’t know if her college junior son was dead or alive.  He is at Penn State, and in his freshman year, a fellow student was found in a stairwell, dead from alcohol poisoning. He had been dead for almost two days. She thinks this made her extra leery, and on the day we spoke he had been diagnosed with strep throat but hadn’t responded to any of her texts, so she found herself obsessively checking her Twitter feed, only able to relax and focus on her work when she saw he had put up a post.

I’m not immune to this, either. The other night I was wondering about the whereabouts of my own college freshman and willing myself not to text her. I picked up my phone when I heard a buzz, and lo, Hayley had checked into a restaurant on 4Square. Phew. But I am doing my best to maintain balance.

One of the things I miss about bygone days is the fact that parents and children formerly shared only selected information with one another.  This was just S.O.P with parents in the 1980s.  Here was my parents’ solution to information management when I was a college freshman:  they called me once a week on Sunday nights on the land line I shared with 3 other roommates.  Most Sundays I wanted to talk to them–I enjoyed our conversations.  But if I didn’t want to talk to them, or was otherwise unavailable because I was doing things my parents didn’t really need to hear about, I instructed my roommates to tell them that I was at the library.  (And sometimes I really was at the library!)  I didn’t bother them with information they really didn’t want, and they didn’t hound and harrass me thrice daily asking for updates on my Western Civ, Hebrew, or French homework.  And compared to my roommates’ parents, my parents were the super-involed types:  they never missed a Parents’ Weekend in four years, whereas my roommates were expected to call home if they wanted to talk, and I don’t think I ever saw their parents on Parents’ Weekend.

Here’s Miller’s solution to information management about her college freshman:

The code I have developed with my own daughter is this: If I haven’t heard from her in a few days, or if I just have an ache for her, I will send her a text that says, “Say ‘hi.’” She will respond with those two letters and it is astounding, really, how much better I feel.

What do you think?  Am I just out of touch with how people are parenting their teenagers or young adults these days?  (I have to say that teaching at a large Aggie means that I don’t have a lot of insight into my students’ relationships with their parents.  I get the occasional student who says that she sends all of her papers to her father for him to proofread, for example, but I’ve never had any complaints about my grading of said papers in spite of Daddy’s proofreading.)

Miller’s “solution” to managing technological overload still sounds awfully hellicopter-y to me, but I appreciate the fact that she’s thinking seriously about the intersections of parenting, technology, and social media.  Her article has convinced me anyway that parents should throw their mobile phones away when their children go to college.  In a true emergency, they can call the land line, send a telegram, or maybe a carrier pigeon.

36 thoughts on “Parenting confessions of a college professor?

  1. Drexel offers a pretty sweet tuition package for faculty brats, so no surprise that her kids go there.

    And I had to share a hall phone with a ton of people. My parents did the Sunday Morning(!) weekly phone call. Which worked fine 1st year, but totally fell apart my second year when my roommate tried to cover for my absence by saying that I went to Rosh Hashanah services that morning. Which would have worked fine except we were terrible Jews. He should have said I was at a frisbee tournament. After that it became more like a fortnight between calls and I had to call using the calling card, since I never knew when I’d be in my own dorm much less my room. I never thought to ask my oldest brother about the Sunday morning phone call problem and my middle brother had a very limited social life so it wasn’t an issue for him. So in some ways it’s easier to have privacy now. They don’t know where you’re at when you answer your cell.


  2. I got a letter from home about every three weeks while in college. It often contained a check, usually about $5, which was expected to “last” until the next delivery. It sometimes did but often didn’t. When it didn’t I just held up convenience stores until the funding stream began flowing again. (No, that can’t be right; we didn’t *have* convenience stores). Adults seem to be as addicted to being “connected” nowadays as the students I teach. I don’t have a clue whether their kids are just indulging them in this or enabling them with their own need not to be alone in the universe. We’ll see how all this technology stuff transfers to the world of assisted living and skilled nursing care.

    That does it for Four Square, though. I was thinking about going “on” there and trying to become the “mayor” of my (academic) building. It wouldn’t be too hard; just between me and the night janitor. But the idea of a parental “check-in” from beyond the grave would be just too weird, even for a small town mayor to handle.


  3. The issue isn’t parenting per se, but the fact that for some bizarre reason people feel compelled to type the most mundane absurd minutiae of daily life into the Internet and other people feel compelled to read it. It is a societal sickness that people are typing into the Internet for public consumption the fact that they just showed up at a goddamn motherfucken restaurant. What’s next? #FARTCONSISTENCY @dumshitte @fuckewadde wow! Chunks snuck out on that one! RT @shitmypants


  4. That’s a good point about oversharing by everyone, but I think most people who were not their children would get restraining orders against people who behaved like the parents in the story behaved.

    To me, the issue is more about parental entitlement and the boundaries between parents and children (if any.)


  5. My kid is a long way from college now, but I have a tendency to bristle at complaints about helicopter parents simply b/c I have seen way more complaints about helicopter parents than I have actually seen over-involved parenting in real life. We’re in a culture now where people use technology to communicate in short bursts about mundane details–facebook, texting, email, twitter, tumblr….all this makes possible short bursts of regular communication. I expect patterns of communication to change between me and my kid as she grows, but I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to think that some component of the quick mundane exchange to evaporate when kids go to college.

    All that said, I, too, remember the Sunday phone calls. There was so much info they never knew.


  6. I’m 29, and I think my mom is the proto helicopter parent. I have to talk to her a minimum of once a day, or she can’t function. She tracks me on Facebook and twitter. If she didn’t know I’d kill her, she’d call my dissertation adviser for updates.

    My mom is more obsessive than most, but I think in all cases it’s enabled by the technology. I’m sure back in the day all parents wondered from time to time what their kids were doing. Now they can indulge that impulse, which strengthens it. It becomes a compulsion. And after 18 years of OCDing about their kid’s every activity…


  7. I’ve seen over-involved parenting as a professor and a neighbor in different communities. It was more about the parents’ needs (usually mothers) than the children’s needs. I think Miller’s “Say ‘Hi'” “solution” speaks directly to this.

    But you are right, Susan: it’s not as bad as child neglect!


  8. And, rustonite: wow. You should send your mother this blog post and invite her to comment!

    A wise friend of mine, the father of a little boy, once commented shortly after his son was born that he thinks over-involvement in one’s children’s lives is a sign of an underdeveloped inner life on the part of the parent. That comment has always stuck with me.


  9. I can see why some parents would want to know what their soon-to-be-adult children were up to. But some of the behavior described in the article borders on the obsessive.

    That said, I did like Miller’s “Say Hi” text message solution. It has the right balance of longing and instant gratification. I remember when I was an undergraduate student on an exchange program in the Peoples Republic of Megalomania in 1990. The expression “Freaked Out” does not begin to describe my mom’s condition. I think she would have appreciated something immediate like a text message that said I was OK. (I did send occasional an postcard and placed the odd transatlantic phone call, but its not the same).

    I can imagine that after nurturing and fretting about someone for eighteen years, its hard to let go. But I am not going to do my kids’ college applications, much less balancing their checkbooks or registering them for classes.


  10. Not hovering didn’t work with my child. I went to college in the mid seventies and was even more cut off from my parents – weekly letters only. We tried the once a week call with our kids – worked ok with the elder who graduated in 2009. With the younger, currently in college, it meant we had no idea she was holed up in her room not going to classes until we got a call that she had to leave school mid semester and we had 24 hours to get her and all her stuff.

    One difference is that the school couldn’t lawfully let us know, she had to do so, and she didn’t until she more or less got kicked out. In the 70’s I think they would have notified my parents if I was in that much trouble.


  11. I’m 26. I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, a blog, or a smartphone. I had to Google to know what Foursquare is. I am admittedly a bit of an anomaly on some of this. That said, I see two issues occurring here: the desire for information and the technological means of acquiring said information.

    On the first, I have seen much much more of this need for information from parents and other relatives (e.g., grandparents) than I have seen the need to share information from myself and my peers. We’d much rather deal with an awkward phone call 2-4 times a month wherein we share half-truths about our lives and our goings-on, than the intrusiveness we currently experience. My mother, for example, feels personally slighted if she goes longer than two days without hearing from me. By Day Three, I receive messages from her “just checking in” to make sure I’m still alive. By Day Four she’s telling me that it really hurts her that I don’t share more of my life with her. I am not the only of my peers to experience this pattern.

    On the second point, I think the multiple means of communication makes this even worse. People (not just parents) seem to have been conditioned by social media to think that if they aren’t in constant communication with someone, they are being abandoned, neglected, or left out. But, gone are the days of letters from home and landlines will soon be obsolete (my college didn’t have phone jacks in the dorms even just a few years ago). In some ways, my peers and I would much prefer those older, slower, less intrusive communiqués than incessant text messages, emails, wall posts, tweets, etc.


  12. We got free undergrad tuition at Purdue but my parents waved my sister and off to the dorms (later an apartment near campus for me). We came home for Sunday dinner, though, with roomies in tow, just as my young uncle did when we were kids. No food service for Sunday dinner in the dorms.

    My parents were occasionally involved – mostly when I asked for help (like bugging my dad for guidance on how to tackle the problems in my mech eng class) or seeing my reaction to my report cards after the end of term. I expect we’ll offer Eldest a similar level of semi-involvement when she starts her undergrad, possibly less since she’s yearning to study at big urban U several hours to the south of us. However, I expect we’ll keep up our texting contacts – it’s already an irregular constant in our relationship.

    You give your kids the help they need to become independent (or, in the cause of Autistic Youngest, as independent as they can be). Hopefully most of that work’s done before they’re off to university!


  13. I’m going to go against the tide here (as someone from rustonite’s generation), and comment that being in frequent contact may not be all that bad a thing, and may, in fact, be more in line with historical norms (if such a thing even exists). Hasn’t it been common across many societies historically for young adults–when they reach that point of “young adulthood,” however defined (marriage, age of majority, whatever) to move only across the village, if they don’t remain in the same house with their parents, forming multi-generational households? I’m pretty sure this is still the norm in a lot of (non-Western) cultures today, and it’s certainly true for all of those college students in the US who live at home and commute to school. Those parents don’t have to text their kids to be sure they’re alive, because they come home at night–just as parents in, say, a First Nations village in 18th-century Canada would have know what their (young adult, probably married) kids were up to because they were in the same small village community, or parents in nineteenth-century Japan would have known what their kids were up to because the young married couple moved into the young husband’s parents’ house.

    Looked at in this way, technology has just enabled young adults to maintain the kind of close connections with their adult children that a modern Western, mobile society has otherwise made difficult. While certainly some people have always moved away from their places/communities of birth for one reason or another, I don’t think we should arbitrarily assume that the experience of people who went to a residential college in the 1970s is, or should be, similar to the college experience now, or even the experience of being a young adult across many different societies/historical period–in fact, the limited contact forced by the mobility, but social technology-lacking, 1970s residential college student may even be the aberration, not the norm. Or, to put it another way: to all those who are reminiscing about the infrequent contact you had with your parents, can you actually say that it would have been the same had you access to the same kinds of social technology today’s college students have? I think not, considering that the college students of the 1970s/80s are the parents today, and–as Miller demonstrates in the original post–she herself happily uses social technology to check regularly that her daughter is still okay.


  14. True story: I was teaching my morning comp class a few weeks ago and a student was clearly responding to a text message. I called him on it (this is a student I know, and typically like) and he explained that it was his mother texting him to find out whether he’d gone to school that day. I told him that he should text his mother back the following: Dr. Crazy says that you should not text your son when he’s supposed to be in class as it really defeats your purpose in that he can’t learn if he’s answering texts from his mom.

    I’d say that the technology has changed the way that all of us communicate (going along with Grad Student’s comment, and other comments upthread) – so while I would talk to my mom once a week for about a half hour in undergrad and grad school, now that we all have “free” long distance calling, I talk to my mom on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, usually for at least an hour. And I’m much more likely to call her with news midweek than I was as a student (although this might only happen like 3 or 4 times in a year).

    It also occurs to me that one of the difficulties for parents is that it’s “good parenting” to monitor children’s online activity when they are underage, so a lot of times parents have been Fb friends with their kids for like 5 or 7 years by the time they go off to college. I would imagine that it’s difficult to unfriend your parents as of your 18th birthday. I would say that before all of this technology, there wasn’t really the same need to *create* distance as one went away to college or grew into adulthood. The distance was a product of doing the normal stuff that you do as you grow up – like moving out of the house. I think the technology just seems to get in the way of that normal progression – in part because of the hurt feelings that would result if there were a major change in how people interact with technology that doesn’t seem “necessary,” if that makes sense.


  15. I’m sure that the availability of mobile phones and social media make all of the difference w/r/t contact with a college student child. But again, the issue isn’t so much the technology in particular as the different boundaries that many parents are drawing with their children. (And I was seeing this stuff in the 1990s, when I taught at a private uni & before the ubiquity of mobile phones. I was seeing then & still continue to see the micromanagement of high school by parents, so this is something that clearly doesn’t start just in college. As Matt L. said above, this kind of attachment parenting doesn’t just start when the children go off to college.)

    I’m not so sure about your argument about intergenerational closeness, Canuck DS. It seems to me that the story of the past 500+ years or so is one of people in motion–migrations across continents and oceans, voluntary or not. I think many people in generations past said good-bye to children not knowing if they’d ever see or hear from them again (Chinese migrant laborers moving to the U.S. & Canada in the 19th & 20th C; European & African migrants to the Americas, ca. 16th-20th C; Westward migrants ca. 19th C in the U.S. & Canada, etc.)


  16. Oh, and CDS – I teach at a primarily commuter school, and yet my students still have their parents texting and calling (and they text and call their parents) all day long. In that regard, your theory that somehow geographical distance somehow creates the need or sets the stage for this does not hold.


  17. Great story, Dr. Crazy! I’m sure the other students chuckled along in reconition, too.

    I have to ask: are these parents all unemployed, or do they have OCD? Who has the flippin’ time to track their children like this??? For some, I guess clipping a GPS to their children is the only way to go.


  18. College in early 60’s meant exchanging weekly letters plus a pay phone call before holidays to confirm when to pick me up from the bus stop (travel by Greyhound). I think that was reasonably typical, though I was poorer than the median student. But is it reasonable to expect parents to be heavily involved k-12 and not be in college? My parents weren’t really involved in my education before college, even though dad was chair of the school board for a while (so we had a chinese wall between his role and mine). Again, that seemed normal then but it’s definitely not now.


  19. We’re in a culture now where people use technology to communicate in short bursts about mundane details–facebook, texting, email, twitter, tumblr….all this makes possible short bursts of regular communication.

    Yes, we are. And it’s absolutely fucken horrible.

    Massive corporations are selling all this atomized instant communication/friend/mayor shitte, and their goal is to keep people from ever engaging in any reflection or contemplation of the fact thatte what they are buying is a goddamn motherfucken disaster.

    When you are facebooking, twittering, texting, tumbluring, foursquare-mayoring, you are not thinking. Thatte’s the whole fucken point of all this shitte: keep the fucken rubes buying shitte and not thinking.


  20. Bill, I agree that it’s difficult to turn off the tap of parental involvement. But, what is “involvement?” It seems like the standards for this have changed along with some of the technological changes we’re discussing here.

    Going to band concerts, sports events, plays, and awards banquets in which your child appears? Yes, good involvement. Talking to them about college and making arrangements for them to visit they schools they’re interested in? Good idea. Driving them to the place where they need to take the SAT or the ACT? Yes.

    Refusing an invitation because “my daughter/son has a big research paper due at school the next day and she/he may need my help?” No. (Why do you even know what your students’ project deadlines are? Ridiculous.) Actually “helping” them finish a project instead of letting them do their own work? No. I would say this last one is unethical as well as evidence of over-involvement, but I’ve seen it before.


  21. Okay, I’m pretty sleep-deprived today, so I have no idea how clear that last comment was, but I’ll see if I can clarify now. Roughly what I meant was that a) clearly modern communications technology must be fulfilling some kind of social/emotional use, otherwise it wouldn’t be so widespread; b) I don’t think harping on how much better a more distant relationship back in the old days of less communication was helps us understand the 21st-century phenomenon of inter-generational closeness, unless we examine what was lost “back in the old days” as well as what was gained, and acknowledge that we may be talking about a minority experience (especially given the rates of residential college attendance vs. the majority of the population); and c)I think it’s worth untangling what might be more relevant to the specific issue of helicopter parents that has concerned most of the comments on the thread, and what can be said more generally about the _benefits_ of social media as enabling more college students to talk more often to their parents–and I wanted to emphasize that there are benefits, because most of the comments here seemed more concerned with its problems.

    And yes, I’m well-aware of the prevalence of migrancy. In fact, I’m a migrant myself–if you look again at my handle, you’ll see that–so I can fully sympathize that there are often issues more important than communication, issues that drive people across borders and oceans. But modern technology provides a huge boon in aiding those transitions from one society to another, as any Skyping international student can attest. The role of social technology in a discussion of college students and how often they communicate with “home” (whether that home is down the street or across the ocean) is a much more more multi-faceted one than we tend to realize when we focus only on the question of “hovering parents.”


  22. As a college student in the later ’80s, I spoke with my parents about every other week. We had no phones in our rooms; there was one phone per floor (about 10 single rooms) for incoming calls, and two pay phones for 60 students to make outgoing calls, usually of the “Hi, call me back” variety if they were long distance. (If they were local, they were usually of the “Two large supremes with extra cheese” variety.)

    When I spent a year abroad in the UK in 1989-90, I wrote aerogrammes (remember those?) to my parents every other week or so, and spoke on the phone for a few minutes every other month. It was over $2/minute back then, and there were NO incoming lines for undergraduates at my very wealthy college in Cambridge, only a message service for truly urgent calls.

    I don’t have children, but my friends who do–both American and French–seem to expect to be able to reach their children at almost any time, and the kids seem to expect the same of their parents. In some cases it can result in more autonomy during the teenage years. One of my French friends will occasionally let her teenaged children stay at home alone (well, 2-4 of them at any given time) while she is on a research trip, if their father or grandparents aren’t available, because they can always reach her on their cell phones, and they can also call for backup closer to home.

    I wonder whether that increased practical autonomy (even if it is permitted by the cell phone connection) means less need for kids to establish their autonomy when they go to college. If being in touch via cell phones all the time means that parents are more willing to let their kids wander off on their own, it might not be a bad thing. That said, when I was a suburban kid in the ’70s, we wandered off on our own all the time, and the feeling of transgression–of going beyond where we were supposed to be, whether it was cycling to the 7-11 two miles away, or going into the field with the bull–was probably a big part of becoming an autonomous individual. I don’t think it would have been the same had we been able to text our parents, or receive a text from them, while off on our adventures.


  23. We had an understanding: I am not smarter than they are, they are adults (all graduated a while ago), I need the abstract not the whole paper. We started that way before college and everything worked fine. Problems pop up, my youngest drank a lot in high school and used drugs. We had a talk. I was happy with the exchange. Today the kid is married and is a head of a significant organization.

    None went for free to my school; all three went to the very top schools; I survived and everybody is happy.


  24. I wasn’t on facebook until I emigrated this (academic) year. And, I am on facebook primarily to keep my parents and various friends happy. ANd to be honest, I like it as a lazy way of keeping them updated about my life. I put up a post once every week or so (and nothing to deep, just let’s people know I’m alive), and it means I only need to skype them once a month. This sounds a bit mean on my part; actually I get on really well with my parents, but I feel no need to phone them unless I have something to talk about, which is about once a month. So, I guess I don’t see facebook as about cyberstalking, as much as a quick way to check in that I’m in control of.


  25. I agree that sometimes the increased contact is a new thing, not the continuation of an older practice, and that the students are often as responsible as the parents and sometimes more so.

    My younger brother lived at home for a few years after high school while he worked full-time. He told my parents virtually nothing about his life. Then he went out of state to college, and they were surprised by how often he called home and how much information he shared, and also how eager he was to have them visit and to share the nitty-gritty of his life with them. But when he was back home visiting, he reverted to the same behavior — not telling them where he was going or who with.

    This was 5-9 years ago and the contact wasn’t extreme (he probably never spoke to them more than two or three times a week, and he shared his blog with them), but he was far more open and in far more frequent contact with them than I was at his age–or even for years later! I see somewhat the same behavior with my students: once they’re gone, the connection with their parents is easier and more welcome because it’s chosen.


  26. I think there are a few things going on here at the same time. As someone who went to college in the 90s, my experience was similar to H’ann’s. My parents called once a week, and if I didn’t feel like talking, it was no biggie. They didn’t call again until the next Sunday (unless they really needed to talk to me, which was rare). When I spent a semester in Paris, I was lucky if I talked to them once a month! In other words, my parents don’t hover. But now that communication has gotten easier, if my mother doesn’t get an email from me in 4 or 5 days, she feels compelled to call to make sure everything is okay.

    But she isn’t intrusive. I think parents are being “taught” intrusive behavior in regards to their children. It starts early, in first or second grade, when the mom who just drops off their kid at soccer practice (and doesn’t stay to watch and comment) is vilified, and dads feel forced to help with the science project/paper because they are worried that if they don’t, their child won’t do well. Combined with this new parental expectation that in order to have an open dialogue with your child you need to be their best friend, it adds up to major hovering. So I think it is much harder for parents to “turn it off” when their child hits 18.

    I could go on. Obviously, this post has touched a nerve. As the parent of 2 young kids (and a college professor) I am terrified that I am going to become one of these parents. Even though I recognize that it would be all about me, and not in their best interests. I think it best if I never friend them on Facebook!


  27. Indeed, when do they have the time. I didn’t and now suspect my helicoptering parent daughter thinks I should have. Oh well, hers will turn into teenagers and then adults someday too. I still don’t have the time, but now she can check my blog or Facebook page anytime.


  28. A lot of this intergenerational comity takes place across the board, or cross-platform maybe I should say. When I was in college if you walked past a fraternity or off-campus residence and heard pre-WW II clarinet music floating out an upstairs window you would have wondered what was going on. But for the last x-decades, I hear music coming from student windows that I heard before the bands in question became stadium acts, when they were still touring campuses in u-haul vans, when a $4 ticket was an over the top extravagance. This despite the fact that I don’t have the foggiest idea about the groups that now come to campus (Bruno Mars?). So that old and relatively healthy element of generation gap that typically began with rejecting your parents’ entertainment choices has never fully happened in the current cohort. In that context, it’s little wonder that text happens.

    Something upthread made me think of an 18th century archival case from Philadelphia in which the wife of a medium-prominent merchant in the 1790s sees her just graduated from college son go off to Revolutionary France as the traveling half of a merchant partnership with a classmate. For the next four years her fifteen page letters to the dear but undutiful son devote half their space to blood-curdling laments for his irregular communication and promises to die right there if the next ship doesn’t bring a letter and preferably twelve of them, alternating with really sharp and archivally useful commentary on what *else* is going on in the household, town, region, government, and across Atlantic world. It’s really weird until you get the rythm of it and then it makes kind of sense.


  29. I have mixed thoughts about this. I went to college in the late 90s and usually talked to my parents once a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. I didn’t feel the need to keep them updated on every single detail of my life, nor did I want them that involved. I would even travel to different states some weekends and “forget” to tell them. They certainly had no idea what was going on with school, other than that I was taking classes and everything was “fine.” They wouldn’t have asked when I had tests or papers due and I wouldn’t have shared that information.

    Now, I talk to my parents several times a week, but mostly just to check on them or share funny stories, etc. They will occasionally ask how my writing is going, I freak out that I’m never going to finish the dissertation, they assure me that I will, eventually, finish, and then we change the topic. It’s all very tidy and neat and may sound like my parents and I have some sort of strained relationship, but we are actually very close.

    Like ej said, technology has made communication much easier, which I think is great. My mother joined facebook to keep in touch with me when I was traveling for research and two days ago they skyped with me for the first time. Even when we don’t talk for a few days, we can still keep general track of each other, if only, as she says, “to make sure I haven’t been killed by some crazy Canadian who went mental because of the ridiculous amount of snow we get.” Fair enough, I suppose.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that technology isn’t really the problem. Involvement isn’t the problem, either. It’s when involvement tumbles over the edge of the cliff into intrusiveness that’s the problem. A student’s mother called a prof I TA’d for to tell her that the student wouldn’t be in class (shockingly not a new development for that student) for a few weeks because the mother thought her son was on the verge of a breakdown, so she was taking him home for a few weeks. I would have died if my parents ever talked to one of my profs! Died – but, first, I would have killed my parents. It goes both ways, too. I have plenty of students who try to tell me their grammar couldn’t possibly be that bad because their parents proofread their paper. A good friend of mine had her father proofread her papers as a MA student. Really? In grad school? I don’t understand that. It’s time to cut the cord, for both parents and kids.


  30. I do see how technology has exacerbated the problem, but agree with H’ann that it (the problem) predates technological advancements. I wonder if there aren’t multiple strains of American culture coming together here, because on one hand there’s the helicopter phenomenon, which I think is primarily an urban upper middle class white folks thing. Even in this phenomenon there are different strains, one connected with urban status-consciousness and viewing child as part of family status package, and the other connected with an over-eagerness to place the child at the center of the family. Both in some ways appear to me to be a response to the backlash against women (especially professional women) moving out of the home and into the workforce in greater, or at least more visible, numbers in the ’80s (see, the panic over ruining your children by putting them in daycare). On the other hand, there is strong desire by very conservative evangelical families (largely though not exclusively blue collar) to maintain control over their children, partially as an expression of what they view to be their parental rights, rigidly maintained in the framework of the patriarchal household, and partially as a way of preventing the children from experiencing anything outside the family’s values. (On the radio the other morning I heard a long rant by a woman who heads some parental rights groups railing about having our rights destroyed by the Marxist brainwashing state; when I went to her website out of curiosity found examples like Timmy goes to court to sue for emancipation because he doesn’t want to go to church anymore. Family is horrified that the court might grant him autonomy.)

    In contrast, my in laws come not only from an earlier generation but a whole different cultural system (think, Edith Wharton’s New York c. 1915), reflecting older models of parenting where children are expected to obey without question, play quietly at all times, and never never interrupt Father while he’s reading the newspaper (and preferably no other time as well). Nobody’s wondering about little Timmy’s feelings in this scenario, that’s for sure.


  31. I remember my mother wondering why my roommates and I needed our own telephone (1976 frosh year): the answer was, our dorm had just been renovated and the public phones removed, probably in a smarmy corporate deal between Yale and SNET. On the other hand — she was initially very hurt that I didn’t write home much because, as a college student, she wrote her mother 3-4 times a week. And got letters in return.

    So I think the point is history = change over time, but not necessarily things getting worse. I am with Susan on this one: the constant contact between parent and child does not necessarily signal *useful* involvement in a child’s life, and the kinds of anxiety behaviors that the post and comments highlight do not even touch the question of what students successfully and purposely hide from their parents. The vast number of students I know who have been sexually assaulted never tell their parents, and are thus left hanging out to dry in bullshitte uni procedures designed to protect the institution. Students don’t tell their parents about their drinking, drug use or — this is a bad one — psychosis that accelerating. I have had several floridly schizophrenic/bipolar students who manage to keep their parents in the dark even when no one else is until someone breaks the rules and gets the parents to come to campus.


  32. Interesting, that with the new privacy rules students can circle the drain without word reaching the parents. I hadn’t thought of that, but that’s not so good.

    Other than that, all I can think, looking back, is that I would have stowed away on the first tramp steamer to god-knows-where. I would have been totally unable to deal with modern levels of supervision. Busting out of the house and not having to report to anyone about anything was some kind of peak experience for me.

    In the modern situation, my phone would be mysteriously out of battery charge almost all the time.


  33. My (mid-’80s) college experience was more or less of the one-phone-call-a-week variety, which probably meant I actually spoke to my father once or twice a month, mostly because he traveled a lot for work. For the most part, that was fine with him. The one exception was the beginning of my sophomore year, which coincided with a telephone company strike that left my newly-renovated dorm without phone wiring (and hence, in those wired days, without service). A family member was diagnosed with cancer, and my father waited in vain for at least a week for me to get around to calling him so he could tell me, then tried sending a telegram, which somehow got lost in the package room, asking me to call, and finally sent a letter with the news. Meanwhile, I was completely oblivious to the fact that we hadn’t been in touch for several weeks, and without the family emergency, I’m pretty sure he would have been, too. Nor did he have any concerns about my safety; he assumed (correctly, I’m pretty sure) that if I were injured, ill, or missing, someone would have contacted him.

    I’ll admit that my childhood (raised by a single father who was away a lot and by my grandparents) would sound downright neglectful to many parents today, but honestly, it worked just fine for me. The grandparents were, admittedly, crucial, and my less-introverted sibling was less happy, but not disastrously so — at least not if you consider the fact that (s)he is a productive, well-adjusted adult and more-, but not over-involved parent hirself a satisfactory outcome of the parenting process.

    Our student population is pretty similar to Dr. Crazy’s, but I, too, still see fairly regular signs of parental involvement in students’ lives, and also a related but somewhat counter trend in which students are expected to be in touch, and miss class, in so that they can participate in taking care of family members and matters: ill parents, siblings and/or elderly relatives who need watching, assorted people who need rides to the airport or other venues, family businesses which need staffing.


  34. I agree with Canuck Down South. The expectation that “normal” young adulthood= leaving the parents and reducing contact with them is definitely a Western, upper-middle class idea. I agree that people in the last few centuries have been in motion, but I don’t agree that the majority of them have been. Remember, 85% of people in the USA don’t have college degrees. Perhaps, as I think CDA was arguing, we are simply using technology to rebuild that lost village.


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