Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Safety Net
There's an interesting article on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal up here today about college students and their "helicopter parents," so named because they are, as the story's headline has it, "Always hovering nearby." The article features a photo of a 21-year old junior at UW-Whitewater who calls her parents in the Chicago suburbs five times a day, and lives in a house her parents bought for her. It also relates some other tales of parental involvement in the lives of today's college students.

No one should turn to me for parenting advice. The Mrs. and I are childless by choice, although if we'd gotten pregnant back in the day, we'd have kids on the brink of college right now. (The horror, the horror.) But I think I know how the world works--and I know how I was when I was a 21-year-old junior. And I could imagine no pit of hell deeper than one that would have my parents expecting me to call home five times a day.

Not that I didn't love my parents--I loved 'em then (love them now), I never really went through that period when I thought they were idiots and was ashamed to be seen with them, and I wasn't counting the minutes until I could move out of their house. But when I went off to college at age 18, it was with an expectation that I would have to function almost entirely on my own. Call them for help or advice, absolutely, when appropriate. Call them for money, sometimes. But check in with them hour-by-hour? If I'd wanted to, they'd have thought something was wrong with me. I'd chosen to go away to school, and "away" meant a change in our relationship. The Mrs. got an even more definite message from her parents. Raised mostly in the Milwaukee suburbs, she wanted to attend UW-Milwaukee after high school, but her parents told her she had to go somewhere away from home, precisely so she could learn some independence.

We have some friends whose two kids are both in college now, but when they were both in high school and living at home, we were amazed at how the four of them used their cell phones to keep in contact. Another couple talks to their daughter at college on her cell at least once a day, no matter where they (or she) might be. So the cell phone makes a critical difference from the way it was back when Mom would ring your dorm room early in the morning or late at night because that was the best chance to catch you. But it also leads to the phenomenon of students encountering some difficulty with a professor or in registering for a class, and whipping out the phone to get Mom or Dad to deal with it. To me, this looks like the backyard whine, "I'm tellin' Mom!" whenever things don't go your way. Why it doesn't look like that to today's students, I can't imagine.

I have often said that given my personality, as a father I would have lived in a constant state of fear, from the moment they first put the child into my arms until death released me from my obligations. So I understand the impulse to be protective of your children. But a mother quoted in the article says, "She's the baby of the family. Being the baby means we're very, very on top of things with her." That seems kind of creepy, really, given that her baby is 21--but staying very, very on top of things is not a new phenomenon, either. When I was student teaching back in the late 90s, a definite change had come in the way parents related to teachers versus their children. There was a time--and I knew this well from my own experience--that if a kid got in trouble with a teacher, that was it. The kid was assumed guilty unless he proved himself innocent. By the 90s, however, the default was different. I had to be extremely diplomatic when talking to parents about their misbehaving or underperforming students, because the odds were good that the parent might view me as an adversary out to "get" their kid. And that seems like a precursor to the kind of micromanagement of your child's life that's going to interfere with their ability to gain real adult independence.

It wasn't long ago that Harper's Index reported that when young people were asked to name the age at which adulthood begins, the most common answer was 26. This answer seems to correlate with the sort of protective parenting described in the WSJ article, and the vast numbers of students moving back home after college. That parenting style also accounts, in part, for the stories you sometimes see about how college graduates, in the workforce for the first time, have trouble dealing with performance-based job evaluations in the corporate world. It's a tough adjustment, going from a world in which the big things in life are taken care of for you, to a world in which all of the responsibility is on you. And helicopter parents don't help. The beautiful thing about college is that it offers you the chance to succeed on your own, but with a safety net below you in case you stumble. But you'll never learn how not to need it if you're going to fall back on it all the time.

If you're a student, or you have children who are students, I'd appreciate your opinions on the phenomenon of protective parenting. Is there something I'm missing?

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