Friday, August 22, 2008

Bye-Bye, Mom and Dad; or, Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

These are the days when academics begin to float back to campus to get ready for the onslaught. If school didn't start this week, it starts next week. You can feel the energy start to rev up. People just beginning new jobs seem to be incredibly excited, and I admit that as I hit my 45th year of beginning school, I am too. I ran into (Not So) New President yesterday, and he seemed to be practically levitating, so excited was he about the arrival of the new class at Zenith and the return of the upperclass-people (at Zenith we do not gender our students against their will, thank you very much.)

Those of us who have come to the office to get ready for the boots to hit the ground next week meet each other as we cross campus on our way to the library, to pick up departmental mail, to get sandwiches since the campus center isn't open yet. At Zenith, hornets buzz around sluggishly at ground level, rising only to dive bomb our Diet Cokes as we cluster in groups of three or four on late-summer lawns soon to be colonized by students. Yesterday several of us were reminiscing about being dropped off at college. The big topic was: "How did you get them to leave?" -- them, of course, being parents. Not everyone, of course, had this problem. Parents used to the boarding school routine knew what other parents did not: that it was only a precious nine weeks to Thanksgiving; they literally dropped their offspring on the curb with a stereo, a typewriter and a duffel bag, and gunned it out of there. Several of my friends who came East (or went West) to school remember just being put on a plane with a couple suitcases. My parents, however, made the ritual drive to Oligarch. When it looked like my mother was about to start ironing my socks in a strategic ploy to not return home without me, my father said brightly, "I could really use an ice cream!" and spirited everyone onto the street. After that, wrapping Mom in duct tape and putting her in the trunk was a cinch. And I was free! Good old Dad.

It's more difficult to get rid of parents in a timely way now. Administrators in charge of this crucial life transition have responded to parental hovering by creating formal, structured activities for the (soon to be) bereft grown-ups so that there can be an equally formal transition to the moment they are asked by other grown-ups, firmly but politely, to leave. Now, please. This means that being dropped off at college is now at least a two-day event, if not longer, where the moment between meeting your roommates and one of them saying happily, "Who wants to get high?" has been prolonged indefinitely. And it appears that the conservatives are right: masculinity has been eroded. Whereas we used to rely on those fathers with fabulous boundaries to snip the old umbilical, they too are organizing the tee shirt drawer and claiming that there seems to be something wrong with the fan belt that requires another night at Ye Olde College Inne.

But it has gotten worse. I now know, because of this morning's New York Times, that some parents never leave at all. Fortunately, the real estate industry -- those great, great folks who also brought you the sub-prime mortgage with zero down -- has stepped in to deal with that pesky problem of parents tenting in front of their childrens' dormitories. In Following the Kids to College Louise Tuteleian tells us about Jim and M.J. Berrian of Westport, CT. Jim and M.J. exemplify a new phenomenon whereby parents are "following their kids to college. From South Bend, Ind., to Oxford, Miss., from Hanover, N.H., to Knoxville, Tenn., they are buying second homes for themselves near campuses where their children are enrolled." For many of these special people, it is because their children are athletes: having never missed a single game of Trixie's field hockey or Chipper's football season, they aren't going to let something foolish like geography get in the way. No sirree, Bob. For example:

Paula Olsiewski and John Healey of New York City had already played musical hotel rooms in South Bend when their older daughter, Georgia, was at Notre Dame. By the time her sister Vivian, 19, decided to go there, they didn’t want to be frustrated again."

"I said to my husband, 'Let’s just buy a place out there,' Ms. Olsiewski, a program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, recalled."

What a good idea Paula! And do you know there is now a name for you? First we had "helicopter parents" (why? 'cause they hover!) and now we have "boomerang parents" -- that's right, those parents who leave their kids at college only to come back again. And again. And again.

Myself, I would call them "kangaroo parents." Except even Mrs. Kangaroo has to get it that someday Junior must leave the pouch. Experts warn that students and their parents will have to set very careful boundaries when Mom and Dad launch their second, so much more fulfilling, college experience (Really? Why?). One young person quoted in the article says that initially she gave her parents a lecture about making their own friends, but soon found herself coming over to do her laundry when she knew her Mom would be there so they could hang out (Perfect! This way the student can ease up about making her own friends, which can be stressful and a huge time-waster).

Helen E. Johnson, a "parental relations" consultant employed by colleges and universities to manage this problem, and the author of Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years, warns "that parents should make sure they’re buying a [second] home for the right reasons." (Which would be......?) This would involve answering the following questions: “Would I like to be in this town even if my child wasn’t here?” and “Does this have more to do with my need than theirs?” (Answers: no, yes. Why pay for therapy when you can read Tenured Radical?) In conclusion, Johnson warns such parents, “You might be making your child more fragile, not less.”

I mean really, what is wrong with people? We in higher ed have seen a number of such changes over the years, each more unbelievable than the last. We know students who go home every weekend. We know college students who send their papers home so that their parents can edit them (much better than going to see your professor); students whose parents walk into advising sessions with them and have to be asked to leave; students who interrupt advising to call Mommy or Daddy on the cell phone to ask whether they should take this course or that course; and parents whose response to an ordinary academic or social problem is to pick up the phone and call a professor, a dean, an administrator and demand an explanation. One parent called me not so long ago to tell me he wanted his daughter to come to my office for several hours every day so that I could supervise her "homework."

I could go on -- so could you, dear reader, I am sure, if you are a college professor from a certain kind of institution. But I won't: why be such a grump at the coolest time of the year? Let's just say, for the 44th year, I am completely excited about the start of school, and I can't wait for the parents to go away so my students and I can get down to the business of teaching and learning -- not to mention growing up.


Bardiac said...

Wow, I can't even imagine.

Our students tend to go home a lot on weekends (because they have a car, or a friend does, and they still feel very tied to home).

What weirds me out is that they often say their mom is their best friend. That's so alien to me and most of my generation.

davidjhemmer said...

I hope you mean your 45th year of school and not your 45th year teaching!

Heather Munro Prescott said...

Buying a second home in a college town is an interesting development, but not a new one. In the days before state universities provided dormitories, it was common for parents to buy a house in town and move the whole family there while their children were in college. Often, they would stay on after the kids graduated and rent to later generations of students. This is how some of the college towns of today originated.

Now, of course, in many college towns, the owners are in absentia and the students are free to have drunken parties and trash up the place and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Anonymous said...

P.S. for some reason my URL wasn't linked in my last post.

Margot said...

I agree. This is totally bizarre and it is very stressful on those students who have cut the apron strings and those support staff who have extra pressure placed on them just as school is starting.
Here at BIG U, I was absolutely shocked to see the hordes of parents buying everything under the sun for kids and hanging out for god knows what reason. We were very poor and so when I graduated, I had a plane ticket and a suitcase (which was on loan). That's it. It bugs me watching all this nonsense and it just perpetuates some of the whininess I get from students, who yes, have actually called on behalf of their kids to complain about grades. Ugghh!!

Sine Anahita said...

At my university, some of the worst parents are other faculty or staff at the university. Children of university workers get free tuition. I have heard horror tales of senior faculty bullying junior faculty to change Junior's grade or to get Cissy an extension on an assignment. Makes it awkward for the students, too, who are often embarrassed about their parents' behavior.

BlogSloth said...

I am hurling. But then I just spent all day listening to speeches from presidents, deans, Starbucks, etc.

Why not buy a house near EVERYTHING??

Like a houser by the gas station? Saves on gas. A house by the mall. Another over there by the gym.

Ah, the upper class.

Anonymous said...

Ha-ha! 10 years ago, when I taught at a private university, a student said to me during an advising appointment, "I don't know if my mom wants me to take that class." To which I replied, "oh, I didn't realize that your mother was a faculty member here and therefor a suitable advisor for you." (She wasn't.) But, on second thought: does advising really thrill us? Do I live to advise, or do I advise to live? I'd almost rather stab my eyes out with dull pencils. Why not let parents take over? It would free up a lot of my time in late October and early November. If they screw up and give their children bad advice, it's their money they'll have to spend on extra semesters of coursework.

Anonymous said...

I've experienced hovering on many levels: several years ago, a parent of a thesis student telephoned to complain about why the student's thesis hadn't yet been accepted. Seemed the student cried when I told her it would take another week to review committee members' comments and go over the thesis one more time. One parent called me every name in the book because her child hadn't taken the time to see me about a problematic make-up examination. And another parent called my dean when his kid lied about not being able to see me because I was never available in office hours. All these students lived with, or near, their families.

My parents and a spare cousin seeking adventure beyond the Midwest helped me move into my dorm in Boston. A light supper, good- bye's all around, and I was left at the dorm while they took several days seeing the sights on their way home.

I hitched a ride with friends who had a Jeep without backseats when I started graduate school. Sat on my sleeping bag the whole way, and still ended up black and blue. When I called my father to tell him I had arrived in Philadelphia, he said: "That's great! Write when you get work." That from a man who left a large family to rebuild post-WWI Germany, met my mother, and learned that letting you rise and fall on your own is not poor parenting, but rather the deepest sort of trust.

Anonymous said...

ahh, the first days of school, and now finally a year without having to pay college tuition. First I was a student, my parents helped me lug my suitcases up the four flights of stairs, hung around for an hour, bought me lunch across the street, then left. 4 years later when I went away again, they were kind enough to drive me to the airport.
When My children went to school, they got the ride to the airport too.
I did get calls, "Mom what classes should I take, I wanted xyz class, but I can't get in, should I take Astronomy or Geology (She needed a science credit and is an English major). Duh, this is a girl who loved star trek, star gate, and hated digging in the dirt... Suggested Astronomy. You ask Mom because she loves you, she knows you, and she's paying the bill.
Now I know there are parents who hover, and I agree, they should let the kid grow up and make their own mistakes and learn how to cope. I only wish I had the money to buy the second home... instead of taking out a second mortgage to send the kids to college. Most colleges cost the average yearly salary. Parents don't send their kids to college to learn how to party, get stoned, or find a spouse.... but rather to get an education. So I suggest, if Mama or Papa calls to complain about the paper, or test, etc. You give them the standard schpiel, "Your child is an adult, and I'm not allowed to talk about these confidential matters to anyone but the student. Have "sissy" or "buddy" give me a call or show up during my office hours and I would be glad to discuss this with her/him.
Obviously I was not a hovering parent, Instead of Students saying, "just send money" parents need to tell them, "get a job".

Anonymous said...

Delurking... Thanks for the post! I find the whole undergrad thing as well as the helicopter parents an interesting to bizarre phenomenon.

And I'm with bardiac on the weirdness of having students say that "mom" is their best friend -- and I find the readiness with which they volunteer that information strange. But that might be cultural.

I didn't grow up and didn't do "undergrad" in this country, but recently took a TT job at a SLAC in this country. Where I went to university, it's all public universities, i.e. pretty much free (about $150 per semester for the public transit ticket and some campus fees). There is pretty much zero advising -- which is a problem too -- and most students either waitress or have RA positions. We also went to high school longer than students here and specialize directly in two or sometimes only one major(s).

Most subjects have exams after a course of studies that one can complete after roughly two and five years. In the humanities, lectures have no final exams; one is just responsible for knowing a certain amount of content that they would cover in the exams eventually. Seminars meant a presentation and a 20-25 page paper after the two month break between semesters (or sometimes the deadline was "whenever," but one knew that eventually one needed to complete the paper for the grade in order to take the BA or MA exams). There hardly ever any grades, quizzes, or "extra-credit" assignments in between. There are also no official transcripts, so that semester that you spent arguing about Hegel until 4 am every night and cleaning up the wine bottles and other remains the next day does never show up anywhere.

Some people go to university near their parents' and live at home, but most even then move out. There isn't the same dorm culture as here. Most people rent a room in the university city. There are no huge welcome weeks and "university corporate spirit" events (there are also no rich alumni who give money or endow chairs). In some ways I find it great how accessible and responsive faculty in the US are, in some ways I find it astounding how happy undergrads seem to be treated in ways that to me seem more like high school (participation grade, percentages, and criteria for its assessment seemed strange to me at first -- I mean, it's a seminar, so what else would one do than excerpt the material before and then go in order to discuss one's questions and ideas about it??). My hunch is that for some reason the culture was such that parents were not expected to be involved also because university instructors were fairly removed, not really people who one just called. And grades were a fairly rare occasion, so that most of the time that conflict was not even a possibility -- and exams were such a big deal that appeals then would take the form of a formal complaint. Seminar grades count so little overall toward one's final grade on the diploma. But we did the general ed in high school, which takes longer, and is a lot like the first two years of college. (And there parent-teacher conferences gave parents the opportunity to go and complain once per semester.)

My sense is that parents are uninvolved in university students' lives where I studied in part because it's mostly not their money that is being spent (well, it is, but via taxes) and in part because there is a different culture of adulthood (moving out means much more "on your/my own now - bye! It'll be great to see you for a visit! But not for too long, remember fish and visitors begin to smell after five days!"). University students are a bit older (we were addressed as Mr. and Ms.).

But the culture is also in some sense more hierarchical, the university still somewhat mystified, and professors highly regarded and granted authority qua position. Plus, if my parents had ever called a professor of mine, they would have a) reached the prof's secretary, and b) the prof would have cared pretty little, because teaching is pretty irrelevant in comparison to research. So that's not so great either...

And I also wanted to say, great blog with very interesting and helpful discussions! So thanks for the work that goes into that.

Anonymous said...

Oy, that turned out very long. Sorry about that.

anthony grafton said...

Great post, makes me eager to see the students again even as I try to make the best of my last archive days (we don't start until mid-September). This change in parenting has been coming on for a while--De Lillo has a great evocation of the parental caravan in WHITE NOISE. But it has become more extreme in the last few years. We used to meet parents, siblings and grandparents for the first and only time at our departmental Class Day receptions, stand around looking embarrassed while drinking bad white wine, and clap for the winners of thesis prizes. Now we often meet the parents more than once in the course of Junior or Sis's four years, and many do seem to have input into student work. I haven't experienced any pressure on grades, I'm happy to say. But it all goes with a student culture even more infantile than the one I knew, which is saying something (though all we got, back in the day, was a plane ticket to school, a transistor radio and tuition paid, we were, to the best of my recollection, completely immature--perhaps licking the street in front of the dorm clean took the time we should have devoted to growing up).

Happy fall, all!

Anonymous said...

Speaking of professors and starting a new academic year, I ran across this link on another website.

HNN's KC Johnson's forum wife has made him a video star now. Can anyone hope for more?


Anonymous said...

I'm a department chair. A few mornings ago I arrived at the office and asked our receptionist what kinds of phone inquiries he was getting, given that classes are starting in just a couple of days. He said he'd been taking a lot of calls from parents of students, asking what books to buy for their kids' classes.

Parents not only paying for their kids' course-book purchases, but doing the research on what to buy. That's a new one! It boggles the mind.

Anonymous said...

Parents are totally unaware that they are disabling their students or certainly they would have better boundaries. I tell my clients, parents of college students, that college is so much more that academics. Parents disable the students by not allowing them to learn the life lessons that are learned in college. If they do not learn them in college, where will they learn them? Go to my web site for more articles on parenting college students and a FREE eBook: Parenting College Students: 27 Winning Strategies for Success.

John Poole said...

Do you think John McCain might be a helicopter grand-parent? That could explain all his houses... ;-)

Anonymous said...

My parents were the opposite of helicopter parents. I felt very alone in the world. I still feel very alone in the world.

The kids with helicopter parents also end up more successful financially. (Not that finances are the most important aspect of life)... I think it's easier to take risks when you know you have a safety-net.

Tim Lacy said...


Great piece! I hadn't heard of this moving-with-the-kids phenomenon. Wow. This complicates the family therapy for the doctor trying to assign a diagnosis of "prolonged adolescence."

- TL

Anonymous said...

Yes, at a large public research institution with many cows in northern Connecticut, parents sometimes bring lawyers to meetings with deans and professors when their little Johnny's and Susie's are caught cheating on exams.

Anonymous said...

I wonder. . .

If universities weren't asked to take on the role of being parents (something you alluded to in your post about underage drinking), then maybe parents wouldn't suffer from the delusion that their offspring were still children while they approach their junior and senior years in college.

Tenured Radical said...

anonymous 4:43-

I think this is a very important thought -- that, as in all social relationships, the two sides do it together, when each believes it is merely responding to a pre-existing situation and, simultaneously, don't interrogate their own position well.


Anonymous said...

I'm a semi-retired academic with a daughter who just left home for her first year of college. TR's "Bye'Bye" is terrific. But to balance things out just a little as we contemplate the return of our students, consider my daughter's recent experience at her highly selective small New England college where she's been for almost six days. Her faculty adviser didn't show up to his session with her, or for any of his advisees. Emails to him bounce back, unread. When she finally tracked him down on the phone, somehow, he (gosh!) didn't know anything about the PIN number he was supposed to give her so that she could register even without help from him. She walked up and down halls to find somebody, anybody, who might be able to advise her about courses in their departments, for the next two days. She took care of it, registering just under the deadline. I didn't call anyone to complain, although I wanted to. She handled it, she now knows she can handle problems. BUT there's no reason that she should have had to do all this just because someone didn't want to do his job. She can't complain about him; she's in his frosh seminar. Thanks for the life lesson, Prof. I'm-Too-Good-to-Advise-Students.

Anonymous said...

I just graduated from college in May and I have to say that I was shocked--SHOCKED-- throughout my four years how dependent a lot of students are upon their parents and/or how parents force their will upon their adult children.

-During my first-year, a very noise sensitive student living on my hallway had her father call the Dean to have her make us be absolutely quiet at 6 p.m. every night so she could do her homework!

-One of my classmates' parents were in contact with one of the professors long before the student ever set foot on campus, wanting to know what the drinking culture was like. How is a professor going to know that question? This student was also in contact with her parents 2, 3, 10 times a day via cell phone and e-mail. Meanwhile, I talked to my parents once a month.

-During my first-year, I dated a senior. A neuroscience major, he e-mailed every paper to his parents (both of whom were psychologists) for editing, including content!

-I was in the mailroom one day and I overheard an argument between a student and her parents: "I want to major in Spanish!" "No, you will not major in Spanish, you will major in Chemistry. End of discussion." If my parents ever did that, I would have slit my wrists right then and there.

I read a disturbing article the other day--I forget where, otherwise I'd link-- that this helicopter trend in college is spilling over into the working world post-graduation. I read horror stories from employers who would get phone calls from mom and dad complaining about their son/daughter's sub-par performance review/inadequate raise/what-have-you. The article also talked about how some employers are having family days at the office so young employees can show their parental units around. "And this is my desk . . . and over here is a spreadsheet I created . . . and here's my very best finger painting!"

I am so horrified at my generation and their parents.

Tenured Radical said...

anonymous 9:11 --

Actually, what happened to your daughter is scandalous, and I am so sorry. I hope it wasn't at Zenith, but if it was tell her to drop by my office on Tuesday and I will help her.


Anonymous said...

I do agree that helicopter parents sound pretty crazy, though at Big Middle Tier State University I come across very few of them. But I think it'd be helpful to think more about this whole idea that the way to get 18 year olds to grow up is to plunk them down in a dorm a long way from their parents and former friends with a bunch of other 18 year olds in an environment with easy access to drugs, alcohol, etc. It doesn't work for everybody, and I'm not sure that's just because they're immature or excessively dependent on others.

Jo(e) has a great post on this where she recommends housing students with retired people and day-care centers - I really liked this idea. (

MommyProf said...

In my (generic social science) theory course last year, we talked about generations and differences. I asked my students, all getting graduate degrees, how often they talked with their parents. Every one of them said it was at least once a day. Even the ones from Asia.