Parents, college, and the student self.

The recent controversies about “free-range parenting” have me thinking about something every college professor deals with: the relationship between parents and their college-age children, which is often very different from what we experienced with our own parents when we left home.  Recently a prospective student’s parents asked me, “So, everything you are saying about self-motivation and intellectual curiosity…. do you expect students to have that when they get here, or do you teach them that?”

Both, I said. I tell first-year students directly what their professors’ expectations of them are — they have to be alert and curious and self-motivated and start building relationships with professors in their first year, and I help them build the skills to do that.  With 84% tenured and tenure-track faculty at our school, they have professors and mentors who are invested in this institution to advise them.  But the older students get, the more I nudge them toward the edge of the nest; if they don’t accept responsibilities and make things happen for themselves, no one else will either, here or in the world beyond college.

These parents were pleasant people.  But I couldn’t help noticing a shade of trepidation in their faces at my answer, which echoed the vibe colleagues and I get more and more from parents: what sort of accommodations can you make for our child that will support him/her in the style of adult supervision and affirmation to which s/he has become accustomed?  And, behind that, a more personal worry: we have been our child’s motivation: what if s/he just can’t make it on her own, without us?  And beyond that, what’s perhaps the real worry (and the source of overinvestment and anxiety): if my primary role is not “parent” anymore, than what am I?

Having been teaching at the college level for almost twenty years, as both a graduate student and a professor, I’ve seen parents’ involvement in students’ lives go up at the same time self-motivation, courage, and maturity among students have in many ways gone down.  As one colleague remarked, “We are raising a generation of kids who cram their schedules full, looking for external validation, and then expect an adult to make things better when, inevitably, they run into conflicts.” This has real implications for the coping skills and sense of agency with which students leave college, because we’re building a generation unaware of who they are when nobody’s watching, alternately longing for and terrified of independent life without surveillance or a crowded calendar of activities among which to rush.  In smoothing all obstacles from their child’s path (what used to be the “helicopter” parent is now the “lawnmower” parent), parents think they are “helping.” But when they get to college, students (especially those from privileged backgrounds) sometimes realize their pre-college path has turned them into Eliot-style Hollow People against their will – and that parental involvement, alternately pressuring toward “achievement” and worrying over safety and ease, has contributed to that.

Interestingly, students are among the first to tell you this about themselves.  Especially after a semester in college, they are seeking more independence and thinking well about how their education can help.  When I read parts of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep with first-year students this year, several passionately affirmed his argument that a focus on credentialing, extracurricular-activity-accumulating, and 4.0 averages (or higher) from middle school onward has created a generation of “really excellent sheep.” Coupled with the constant self re/invention of social media (which turns eerie and malicious with things like YikYak),  this leaves an awful lot of students not knowing who they are when nobody’s watching, or grading, or judging.  What do you really want to be? Who are you, anyway? This is a generation longing for authentic experience even as it is hemmed in on all sides by simulacra, which almost — but never quite, deep down — succeeds in bending that craving to itself.  And not knowing who you are and what you really want, apart from your parents and the paradigms in which you’ve grown up, gets more and more dangerous — professionally, spiritually, and emotionally – the older you get.

No parent would say “But I WANT my child to have a massive, painful midlife crisis!,” even if that’s what they are setting them up for.  Yet so many parents can’t see that they are so invested in their kids they have no sense of where their own selves end and the child’s begins – which means the kids don’t either, even at the natural maturation and transition point of high school into college.  My colleagues and I have seen this over and over.  When a student expresses even a little bit of doubt, anxiety, or fear, the parent freaks out and takes the student to the doctor and gets the student medicated, so that what may be just uncomfortable but normal emotions become occasions of fearful self-pathologizing.  One parent brought to a prospective-student weekend at my college a child who had literally never slept away from home before.  The parent put the student in the dorm and hovered anxiously, telling her again and again, “you can call me at the hotel if you need me.” Unsurprisingly, that’s what the student did.  The student did not end up coming to college, at my school or, I suspect, at all.  I hope she will make it to college somewhere.  (And I hope this does not lead to the sort of angry, painful midlife student/parent rift that can unfortunately be necessary for anything like self-determination in such cases).  Another student told me that his mother reads his journal and hacks into his computer to sift through his files of creative work.  My jaw dropped.  So what do you do? I asked.  “Well,” he said, “I have several different blogs online, under different aliases, and I put all my stuff on those so she doesn’t know where it is.”

It’s hard to think of a better example than that of the way parental smothering — all for the “best” reasons — becomes real endangerment:  driving your child online — where there are more dangers than you can imagine — to escape you. Researcher danah boyd [whose lower-case name is her preference], has written in her fascinating book It’s Complicated that the Internet is the last “public space” available to teenagers in a world where parents won’t let them go anywhere; the dangers of such public spaces are real, of course, but the threats to children are much more likely to come from within the same domestic or online spaces parents believe are “safe.”  I don’t have a child, so I’m sure there are many emotions in this experience I don’t understand.  But as a college professor, I come up against the reality more and more each year that parental overprotectiveness hinders my ability to do my job, because it hinders a student’s ability to use her education to grow into a functioning adult.  Consider this: in hovering, offering protection again and again, a parent’s not saying so much “I’m here if you need me” as “I don’t believe you can get along without me, or ever will.” I want to ask parents: is this what you plan to do when your child is 30? Follow her around her office and interrupt conversations with her boss to ask him not to speak to your child in that tone of voice?

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote of the space of public civic life she called the polis, in which we have to find out who we are by contact with others.  Confronting real challenges and differences of opinion stretches the self beyond what might otherwise be its self-protective, self-limiting borders.  This is true for all of us.  It’s true for students.  And it’s true for their parents, who may have become a little too used to seeing a child as an extension of themselves, subject to their anxious control.  If I don’t stand over him/talk to the professor for him/plan out his whole course of study, maybe he’ll never get a job.  Or, maybe if you don’t, he will. And be the sort of functioning adult he will need to be for the rest of his life.  Maybe — maybe — he will be just fine.

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6 Responses to Parents, college, and the student self.

  1. lynne says:

    As a law student at a nationally competitive school, I’m watching this play out as my classmates divide into two distinct groups. The first group consists of students who have had some time to figure out who they are (outside of undergrad) before coming back to school. They are overwhelmingly better at contributing to the class discussions. Very few of these students have inflated egos, dominate discussions or attempt to sabotage their classmates. In our first semester, most of this group got lower grades than the people with helicopter parents because they were forced to deal with financial pressure, basic life tasks, partners and children.
    The second group consists of those who have helicopter parents and those who finished undergrad in three years or less before jumping straight into law school. Most of these folks are a huge challenge to deal with in class or in group projects. Many of the students who live with their parents or whose parents are otherwise “hovering” in their lives attempt to sabotage classmates by lying about reading assignments, passing around incorrect notes and making changes to group projects at the last moment without their team members’ consent. These are the same students who dominate class discussions or argue with professors, even when they’re wildly off topic. If I didn’t have to spend another two years with these people, I’d be asking: “can you imagine arguing with a judge, a senior partner or a paralegal at your firm the way you speak to your professors and classmates?”
    I can’t wait to compare these two groups in a few years when we’re all trying to get JD required jobs.

    • Wow, Lynne. What a powerful testimony this is. I agree with you completely – how DO these people expect to ever get/survive/thrive in actual workplaces with those behaviors??!! But knowing you, I know you will not be (and never have been) One of Those. 🙂

      Your story is making me think, again, about the power of *actual life experiences* in helping people mature, build character [that much-abused word], and get a sense of what is really at stake in any situation. Sounds like you have a lot of classmates trying to create drama to have some “problems” or “intrigue” in which to position themselves amid otherwise kind of empty lives — “wow, now we are really LIVING!” This is classic immature behavior – think of junior high, right? – because the people with *actual* issues and problems to deal with have much more realism and perspective about life, having seen it firsthand in a way from which many other students are (artificially) protected. You see these differences between colleagues in so many professional environments – the ones who have something meaningful going on in the world beyond the office, and those who don’t.

  2. Karen says:

    I just wanted to say yes. Exactly.

  3. jwalk25 says:

    Yes. This expresses so well the frustrations I experienced last semester while teaching an algebra course populated almost entirely by students in their first semester of college. Many of them were struggling (to a larger extent than was expected) to learn time management, how to take responsibility for their own education, and how to deal with the consequences of their choices.

    • Glad [in a way :)] that this resonates with you – it is true that we are, as college instructors, “teaching” more of these life skills now than our predecessors were. But the good news is that students do respond – especially to someone as dedicated and conscientious as I know you to be!

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