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.