A great, great article in yesterday’s Washington Post on dealing with helicopter parents from two university officials. I especially liked their last two paragraphs:
Having raised smart and accomplished kids, most parents are able, with a little guidance, to recognize the difference between being a constructive partner in their child’s educational journey and being a counterproductive, infantilizing, control freak.
As for those who choose to ignore that advice, we have a simple message: Should you decide to park your helicopter in the middle of the freshman quad, you will be ticketed and towed.
They recommend not disconnecting parents from children or even encouraging that “kiss them good bye and text them twice a week” approach. Rather, they hope the parents can stay connected and encourage them to use all that the campus has to offer. Not a terrible idea.
I thought back to my own college years, often riddled with anxiety because my mother has never been healthy. I always feared that I’d be away at college and find out that she had died. Now at 84, and still not healthy, that anxiety has subsided significantly, even with me many more miles away in Buffalo to her Yonkers. My college roommate put it succinctly on my mother’s 80th Birthday.
“You’ve always had this anxiety about your mother dying. I think you can let that go now.”
And I did. From that day forward.
But looking back, I also realize that I wasn’t always that anxious about being disconnected from my mother during my college years. What I think served me well was a simple household decision my roommate and I made back in our freshman year in 1988:
We didn’t get a phone.
We used a local pay phone on the dorm’s first floor. My then, roommate, a bit of a ladies man, would get a bunch of calls there to the point where the first floor guys wanted to chip in and buy us a phone.
But I remember not calling home as much that year and the separation was good for me. I had to stand on my own two feet and sure I made some mistakes. I got railroaded by a Modern Language dean who made me take a German course, which I subsequently flunked. They placed me in second level spanish but it was over my head and there were no openings in Spanish I, so I was told I needed to start a new language immediately. (You were supposed to meet the literature level of the language by the end of your forth semester–I ended up back in Spanish and completed the requirement a semester late).
I made poor decisions about sleep. I drank a bit. Dated the wrong girl too many times and generally tried a bit too hard in too many ways.
Would it have been better for me to have a parent walk a bit closer with me during that time? Some would say yes, but I say “Hell no.” I needed to make those mistakes and learn who I was as a person outside of my parent’s ideas about that. And I ended up being involved in Campus Ministry without much influence from them at all.
I remember during a club fair for incoming students and their parents, I walked around and signed up for the radio station and campus ministry on my own. My dad was kinda happy about that. We checked out the other clubs and came across debate which I liked and signed up for and then we stumbled upon the Gaelic Society.
Dad: “Put your name down there!”
I did so and found out at the student club fair that essentially the club was more of a party scene drinking club that also learned a bit about Irish language and culture between the parties. I’m sure some took the latter very seriously, but most simply went for the booze and parties.
If I listened to dad, I may very well have flunked out of college.
I think dad hoped I’d find a nice Irish lass there…but instead I married a Brooklyn Italian that an Irish girl named McCormick introduced me to well after my Fordham days…
And she’s perfect for me.
That said, my students probably have better relationships with their parents than I had with mine. I wonder if they are more open or if their parents are more lenient. I’ve met some pushy overbearing parents (usually mothers, but the occasional dad) and heard stories from several colleagues of parents calling campus ministry disappointed in their children not wanting to be involved and then blaming the campus minister for it.
But here’s one thing I remember dearly…my Campus Minister got my parents and my sister to write me letters of support on retreat. Those were quite meaningful and a complete surprise. I wonder if those letters would be as meaningful to many of my very connected-to-their-parents students? I wonder how many parents would even write a snail mail letter instead of e-mailing it?
At UB, we have a big commuter population and many of those students head home very quickly and continue to attend mass with their parents at a local Buffalo parish. I could never wait to get back to our campus parish after a summer at my parent’s local parish. But today’s students just like being home more. And thus, many don’t get a chance to explore their inner spiritual lives as deeply on their own and a weekend retreat is far too much time away from the comforts of home. I end up taking what I can get and doing a lot of days of reflection and twi-light retreats, which are often hardly as powerful, in my mind, but seems to work for the students.
So I wonder, is it good or bad that parents are much closer and even have to be appeased more in university life today? It’s probably in the middle (as are most things). If they can be encouraging of the student to find their independent voice, I think their involvement is awesome, but if the child is living for them, perhaps even through them and never learns how to stand on their own two feet–then that’s a problem. A good example is my sister and brother in law who have talked with their oldest about whether or not she should take a semester off to go work on a once in a lifetime kind of project. They’ve helped her weigh pros and cons but the final decision rests with my niece alone.
So students, what might you think? Do you hear the rotors of your parent’s ‘copter? Or are your parents more hands off? And which would you prefer them to be?