Monday, September 10, 2007

Thwack, thwack, thwack...

I'd say that the beginning of the fall semester is like a black hole that sucks up all available time and energy, except that "black hole" sounds way too peaceful for what's happening around here. "Whirling vortex" is more like it. Picture me as Dorothy with the tornado bearing down crying "Auntie Em! Auntie Em!" Toto and I are huddled in the house watching scary people fly by the windows. Are they the Wicked Witches of the East and West? No, they are the dread helicopter parents.

The phrase has been all over the media: ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the NYTimes, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and loads of other places. There's even been some research done on the phenomenon. Talk about helicopter parents in mixed company (i.e., faculty and administrators) engenders lots of rolled eyes and laughter. Let me tell you, the reality is scarier than any wicked witch and nothing to laugh about. I know the justifications: they're paying obscenely large amounts of money and have a consumer's right to be involved; they just want what's best for their children; their child is unusually talented/phenomenally gifted/psychologically fragile and needs special care; they've always been this involved in their kids lives, etc., etc., etc. I don't buy any of it. This kind of behavior is all about the parents.

Yesterday I spent several hours dealing with a roommate situation: a bunch of girls (that's what they call themselves) having trouble negotiating who gets which room in a suite. This kind of thing is standard at the beginning of the academic year. (Typically, the drama in sorting out suites comes from groups of girls. Guys move in without much fuss - "sure, I'll take this room, whatever." Roommate issues among groups of boys tend to arise later from what we like to call "behavioral issues": a guy comes home drunk, passes out, gets up in the middle of the night and urinates on his roommate's backpack or desk or computer. Seriously - this is a common occurrence.) So back to the girls. Everyone attempting to resolve the situation (six administrators and one RA) thinks the argument would have been over in an hour if parents hadn't become involved. Sadly, three sets of parents did become involved and two days later there is still no agreement. We've had parents screaming at each other and at girls who aren't their kids, mothers sobbing hysterically, two threatened lawsuits, and more public bad behavior by alleged grown-ups than I've ever seen. At this point all the girls are desperate to work things out themselves and the parents might just have gotten the message that they need to step back, but I doubt that this is the last we'll hear from these folks.

And it's not like these particular parents are unique. Two years ago, a mother who lives nearby came to clean her son's room every week until his roommates rebelled and asked us to intervene. Last year an irate father insisted that his son needed to be moved into the room he had had as a freshman. We get calls weekly from parents who say, "Don't tell my son/daughter I called, but...". They even call us to complain that their kids aren't going to bed early enough. One father wanted us to make sure his son was properly nourished while he was attempting to lose 30 pounds in a month to qualify for a sport. Another called because two courses his son wanted to take were scheduled at the same time and he insisted that we reschedule one of them. Every year students are disciplined because their parents were inappropriately involved in their academic work - I suspect the number of papers that are essentially co-authored by parents and students is shockingly high. Usually only a handful come to light each year.

These sorts of interventions are infuriating to deal with and they cost universities and colleges ridiculous amounts of money. They also don't help the kids. About 2/3 of the time these interventions are followed by a visit from a thoroughly humiliated student who doesn't want the parent involved but doesn't know how to get that across. And the kids who actually want their parents involved in every decision they make every day - those are the ones I really worry about. Parents, do your kids a big favor: take your separation issues, your identity issues, your need to feel needed, whatever it is that motivates you to be over-involved and work it out somewhere other than in your kid's life in college. You're probably paying a lot of money for this college education. Stand back and let it work. It's the only way you'll get your money's worth.


Sylvie said...

So true! (no pun intended, ha!) I have 3 boys and have moved every single one of them into college their first year and they didn't want us, mom in particular, to do anything! Just help schlep the stuff up 3 stories to their room, buy them some food supplies and kiss them good bye.

So I had the opposite problem in that I wanted to do at least one thing. It's not like I was going to fold their underwear and organize their sock drawer for them or hang cute little curtains. I just wanted to make up their bed. That's it. I'm a Mom and wanted to do one Mom thing.

Fortunately we did raise very independent boys and taught them that they had to fend for themselves, but we were there for support whenever it was needed. Key word is support, not interference. If in a given situation, we felt they had exhausted all avenues with no resolution, we would first ask if they wanted us to intervene. Only if they said yes, would we do so.

They are much better prepared for the real world than if we fought all of their battles.

DC Designs said...

How very embarrassing for the students! They probably thought they were escaping this parental nonsense.

Ellen said...

from someone who got the boot out of the parent's door and never returned...WTF are these people thinking? it surprises me and yet it doesn't. some people really do believe that the world revolves around them. my guess is that the kid finally "rebels" at some point and is allowed to make his/her own decisions.

best of luck getting thru!