Monday, August 23, 2010

The Annals of Anxiety: Constructing Velcro Parents As A "Problem" For Higher Education

This morning I have been thinking about what kinds of criticisms are attached to warnings about cultural decline, and why. For example, our friend Historiann asks today why older people are always so critical of the young. Yeah, why is that? Particularly given the fact that generation after generation, young people seem to grow up into functional workers, consumers, artists, writers and financiers, no matter how much Facebook they do; how many video games they play; and how much/little they read.

Historiann's emphasis on why cultural critique dominates, at the expense of a more relational view of cultural change and material outcomes, is an interesting corollary to William Julius Wilson's 2009 reassessment of a sociological school of thought, of which he is a prominent architect, that highlights cultural explanations for Black poverty at the expense of structural analysis. In More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor In The Inner City, Wilson argues that structural forms of discrimination that are partly racial have acted in combination with other, non-racial, forces (such as the failure to invest in urban infrastructure and education, and workforce changes associated with globalization) to increase the burdens on Black people living in areas of core poverty. These things, he argues, cannot be separated from what is viewed by critics as cultural dysfunction in the same communities, such as the apparent unwillingness to work at low-paid jobs with no benefits. In other words, choices people make about their lives (many of which are heavily circumscribed by structural obstacles) and the world-view of the poor (which actually might be reframed as knowledge) are inextricable.

As if by a miracle, the New York Times printed a back-to-school article today which prompts a meditation on blaming and on anxiety about cultural decline. It's about those apparently pathetic dweebs -- late-boomer parents -- who cling to their children relentlessly when dropping them off at liberal arts and Ivy League colleges. Mocked relentlessly as "Velcro" or "helicopter" parents, they are the stuff of campus legend, to which hours of summer strategy sessions are devoted. They decorate their children's dorm rooms. They attend orientation. They book themselves into hotels for days, supposedly to help their children settle in, but in reality to help themselves separate. Extra deans are hired for the first week of school to hand out cheerful tee shirts and coffee mugs that say: "Get a life!"

OK, I'm kidding about the deans and the farewell tschochkes. But for a over a decade, residential colleges have operated under the assumption that late boomer parents are unnaturally traumatized about the loss of their babies, that they are likely to cling in annoying and unhealthy ways, and that their departure must be strategized like the draw-down from Iraq. Hence, the increasing importance of "'hit the road' departure ceremonies." My favorite is the one in which students and parents are placed on opposite sides of the room, and college speakers greet the students while literally turning their backs on the parents.

Here's your hat, what's your hurry? Don't forget to leave a check. Meanwhile, as you can imagine, we faculty are observing the scene of tearful departures and having a conversation that sounds like this:

"My parents just helped me carry my $hit upstairs, and then they left, and me and my roommates fired up the old bong-a-roony."
"My parents just unloaded my $hit on the $idewalk and drove away."
"My parents just put me on the red-eye with a duffle bag and a six-pack of beer."
"My parents just threw me out of the plane when it was circling over Harvard Square."


"That's cold, man."
"Yeah, really cold."
"That's the way it was, man. Gotta learn to survive. Gotta grow up. Look at these pussies."

OK, that's also not true. But it is true that few of us in higher ed who decry the programming done around move-in day would admit what forces of repression had to be mustered to get through the experience of leaving for school. Which of us can recall accurately how the time between the arrival at college and our family's departure as a new and different unit that would go on forever (sob!) without us passed with time-warp speed? Or what it felt like to be left in a place, no matter how much we had desired it, where -- except for the kids who had gone to boarding school -- we hardly knew how to feed ourselves, much less find classroom buildings with strange names?

In fact, stories that critique parents for loving their children too much make me ask cultural and structural questions. One is: are today's parents yesterday's neglected children who are simply trying to do a better job than their own parents did? Is it perhaps better that parents and children are closer and more expressive with each other? In other words, to what extent does the devotion to children among late boomers demand reflection on changes in parenting styles during the 1960s and 1970s, a period in which bourgeois adults were putting their toes, and then their whole feet, in the waters of self-absorption at some cost to their children? A period in which vicious critiques of "momism," as arch-conservative Philip Wylie put it in 1942, gave way to parental detachment and teenage autonomy? Remember the live and let live middle class ethic of Bill and Pat Loud, of An American Family (PBS, 1973) whose children used their southern California ranch house as a crash pad while their parents floated in and out of the house on a diet of alcohol, cigarettes and extra-marital affairs?

To what extent are parents who we criticize for over-parenting simply reflecting, whether realistically or not, on how neglected they felt as they were booted out of the nest?

So that's the cultural argument that requires some investigation, but it is one that is almost exclusively focused on the middle and upper classes, as is the critique of helicopter/Velcro parenting. A more embracing, and structural, direction for research would look at a broader class analysis of college attendance. It would take more seriously the fact that leaving one's teenager at a residential college is an atypical experience nowadays, always has been, and because of the high cost of higher education, becoming more so. The vast majority of high school graduates who matriculate this fall will be attending community colleges and branches of the State U., living at home, and working between 20 and 40 hours a week to pay their expenses. I suspect this has always been a bigger part of the story than the middle class bildungsroman tells. A few years ago, I read a memoir by a working-class gay man from the Left Coast. One of the things he wrote about was applying and being admitted to one of California's then-stellar and inexpensive research universities without speaking to anyone in his family about it at all. The night he packed his ramshackle car, terrified that they would do something to prevent it, he told his parents he was leaving for college. To this man's great relief, and sorrow, no one in his family appeared to care about his departure at all. ("Wow," said a friend with a Ph.D. and a good teaching job, who also attended California schools, when I told her this story; "That's what happened to me too.")

Hence, we might ask, are generalizations about "parents," and how they behave when separating from their children, valid at all if they do not take into account the large number of generationally similar people who have a very different experience? We might ask: has "going away" to college ever been the typical, or even the most desirable, experience? We also might ask, given that tuition and fees alone at a residential college averages, according to the College Board, $7,020 (public in-state) $18,578 (public out-of-state) and a whopping $26,273 (private), whether there isn't an awful lot at stake for parents. I'm not just talking about the money: I'm thinking about the saving, the sacrifices, and the second mortgages parents are asked to take out to finance an education; the corollary investment in making the right choice, one that is not going to result in a year that has to be repeated because of getting off on the wrong foot; and the years of intangible investment in the teenager's readiness to attend college in the first place.

We have too little knowledge about what the high cost of college is really "costing" those who undertake it. Furthermore, why do we assume that the four-year residential college experience is the norm, when it no longer is -- and perhaps never has been? According to Department of Education statistics released in 2008 (see the summary report with reported data here) out of the 16.4 million students enrolled at four year post-secondary institutions that year, 12.6 million were enrolled in public institutions, 2 million of whom were enrolled part-time. Of the remainder, 3.4 million were enrolled in non-profit private schools and 1.6 million were enrolled in private for-profit institutions (an increase of 1.2 million students, reflecting the privatization agenda that was enabled, albeit poorly and at great cost to the taxpayers, under the Bush administration.) The student demographic that is growing fastest is students matriculating at community or junior colleges: in 2007, seven million students attended two-year institutions, and over half of those students were enrolled part-time, so we can safely assume that they too were working.

This is only to emphasize that, while the number of students attending four-year private schools is a healthy 3.4 million, it is at least equalled by those students who are working, attending classes at a local school part-time or on-line, and probably living at home. When you then add the number of students who are working and going to school full time; going to public or private schools and living at home; and attending non-residential for-profits, in fact the parental departure scenes depicted in the Times are suffered by relatively few students.

Hypothesis? The vast majority of students working towards a B.A., while they may be living at home, may be separating from their parents just fine, thank you. Research, please.


Anonymous said...

I've done some research in this area, and to be honest, this whole "helicopter parent" thing isn't all it's been made out to be. Most college kids have healthy relationships w/ their parents, and it's the ones who fancy themselves totally independent (at the tender age of 19) and alienated from their families who seem to have the most trouble, developmentally speaking.

Is living with a dairy-crate entertainment center and rolling pennies for ramen really a necessary developmental experience? We have a huge generation of parents who have the means and the desire to help their kids financially, and boy do we need it these days. I could do without those few parents who seem to think I'm itching to talk to them about Suzy's grade, but what's wrong w/ parents loving their kids and wanting them to succeed?

cpo said...

I remember my roommates' relationship to their parents diverges quite a bit from my memories of their relationships. I suspect for many this development stage is so different that memories and history end up being quite different.

On the other hand, my husband's parents literally moved to the UK the month he started college. He saw them over Christmas break.

Nicole said...

Saw that article this morning and wondered what Historiann's take on it would be. :)

I was the only kid I know at my fancy school who showed up to orientation alone... but I had gone to boarding school and lived in another state and was definitely a scholarship student. We did see some helicopter parents (and pitied their children... one in particular's mom would fly in once a month to do his laundry for him) then and I do see some helicopter parents now as a professor. I'm not sure how much change there has been... I leave that to the experts.

It is definitely true that NYTimes tends to focus on the experiences of those at ivies, near ivies, and slacs (and maybe UMich and the UCs). The directional state schools are generally not covered and those experiences are different, and possibly more varied.

Knitting Clio said...

The only problem I've encountered is with parents who are used to complaining to principals and superintendents when their child gets a bad grade and getting their way (true story from friends who are teachers). They then try to pull this strategy in college and hit up against FERPA. Fortunately this doesn't happen often at my university since we have a large "non-traditional" population (and yes, I'd agree that the "traditional" age category really isn't typical past or present -- just look at what happened with the GI Bill after WWII).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

tl; dr, but awesome photo of Bluto!

You know, TR, I think that an important subtext in all of your posts about academia (and those of many others, such as Historiann, Notorious PhD, Dr Crazy, etc) is the growing divide between elite research universities and liberal arts colleges--on the on the one hand--and state and regional universities and colleges--on the other.

For example, faculty at elite institutions basically have the power to ignore or brush off irate parents. And faculty at elite institutions use very little adjunct teaching labor. As these kinds of problems get worse at non-elite institutions, the gulf grows.

Historiann said...

CPP makes a good point--but I think the real differences aren't institution-dependent (elite privates versus public unis) but rather are status-contingent (regular faculty versus adjunct/non-tenure track labor). We don't see helicopter parents at my large public uni frequently, and when we do, I don't feel partictularly vulnerable to their pressure because I'm tenured. OTOH, I'm sure it feels really different for my colleagues who are teaching 4-4 loads as lecturers or 3-3 loads as adjuncts.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Great post, TR.

Your point about the students' separation anxiety is right on the money. I learned to teach first-year composition in a program that emphasized lots of free student writing, and I would always allow students to write about anything they wanted for their first (ungraded diagnostic) paper. (Guardians of Academic Standards, be cool: they had six more papers to write.)

First week of the fall, with twenty-four students, I would get twenty papers about move-in day. Every fall.

Part of that was because moving top school was a Major Life Event that had just happened to them. But it was also about emotional disruption. They'd all been left in a strange new place, with people they'd never met, and their family just left them. Who in their right minds wouldn't have to adjust a little to that?

And while I've always lived in dread of the parent who wanted to argue a student's grade, I haven;t had that experience at any point in the last seventeen years. I did, however, have the experience of the undergraduate advisee in ongoing academic crisis whose parents really wanted to help. FERPA prevented me from telling them about his grades.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

CPP makes a good point, and I muse: by the time my students arrive at my second/third-tier urban state school, they may be "kids" emotionally (hey, weren't we all at age 19?), but they've been adults economically for quite some time, with part-time jobs since age 16 or 17, and continuing to work to get themselves through college, even if supplemented by a check from home now and then.

So perhaps that's why profs like Historiann and I don't really run into the helicopter parents? Our students may have some emotional maturing left to go, and they may even be living at home, but their own economic agency may mean that they don't see themselves as under the parental wings anymore.

AcadeMama said...

I think there's a lot to be said about the vast differences in maturity levels and experiences that incoming students bring with them to college. Every individual is different. My daughter, who has ADHD, may likely have different needs (of me *and* of the school) than a student coming fresh out of a college-prep school in a large metro area. Helping her settle in, find her buildings before the term starts, letting her know how the financial aid system works, etc....I see those as part of my responsiblity not only as her mother, but also as someone who's *done this before*....Many times, in fact (BA, MA, PhD). Isn't that what happens in life all the time? The experienced people show the younger people the ropes a little bit?