I have a parent. I am a parent. Some of my best friends are parents. So why do I get uneasy when a mother calls to arrange an admission interview for her son or when parents are the only ones to ask questions during a group information session or when a father tells me that “we” are applying to six top colleges?
And lest one think it ends with college admission, my colleagues in academic and student affairs can relate stories of parents wanting to attend judicial hearings or challenging a professor about their daughter’s grade. What a different world. My parents had trouble even spelling “university!”
After reading several books on the current generation of college students, including Barrett Seaman’s Binge and Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, President William G. Durden ’71 said this in his convocation address as the academic year began: “Your age cohort is thought to be invested with a feeling of extreme ‘entitlement.’ … And you are believed to be so emotionally fragile that you can’t weather naturally even the most minor setbacks such as not getting into a class of your choice, receiving a grade lower than an A or not making the first cut on an interview. … You all too frequently continue to rely on your parents to fight your battles for you. In fact, your parents are now your best friends (not your peers), and you speak to them constantly on your cell phones. … Without them, you would have to face life in its pure form; you, too, would have to face challenge, initial confusion and, perhaps, ultimate disappointment. They are, say critics, your natural human shield; they are your unilateral ally in battle with the ‘other!’ ” (See the full text at: www.dickinson.edu/news/convocation/address2005.html.)
In their book Millenials go to College, Neil Howe and William Strauss speak of “helicopter parents,” defining our generation of parents as “always hovering—ultra-protective, unwilling to let go and enlisting the team (physician, lawyer, psychiatrist ...) to assert a variety of special needs and interests.” When parents don’t get their way, Howe and Strauss say, “they threaten to take their business elsewhere or sue.”
When my children were growing up, my wife and I joined our neighbors in the omnipresent caravan to Little League games, volleyball, piano lessons and scouts. Was this “programming” of our children wrong? Were the values we tried to teach our kids (working toward a goal, integrity, cooperation and respect) misguided? I think not. But somewhere along the way, many of us mistook our needs to see our children excel with their needs to be kids. Enter the college-prep mom and dad.
With inquisitive parents in tow, students seem more nervous today than in the past during a campus visit. After admission, the parent typically writes an appeal to the scholarship committee about why the child deserves a monetary award. And if the student is placed on the waitlist or denied admission, the parent, with his ego bruised more than his son’s, calls to put pressure on the admission officer.
Despite our best efforts to impress upon parents that their children should take charge of the admission process, the helicopter blades continue to whir. At this fall’s first-year parents orientation session, academic and student-affairs professionals advised parents to let go, to allow their children to handle their own challenges and to work with Dickinson to instill a sense of confidence and a willingness to take risks. Older students performed humorous skits, revealing the silliness of parental overinvolvement. Everyone laughed and “got it.” Then the parents left, a terrible roommate situation or a class-scheduling conflict occurred, and the phone calls to the dean began.
A liberal-arts college is a special place. Young people only seeking a credential and who want to be unnoticed and unchallenged need not apply. College faculty and staff cannot help students to become independent thinkers and problem solvers if parents intervene every time their “emerging adults” (as The New York Times recently dubbed them) call for help.
As difficult as it is for parents like me to avoid, interference of this sort undercuts the large investment we make in our children’s education. Instead, parents should listen, reflect and advise. This is not a request for parents to “be silent and send us money” but rather a plea to let Dickinson’s staff and faculty do what they do best—help young people, through a useful education in the arts and sciences, to become engaged citizens and leaders in a global context.
And so, I solemnly swear that the next time my daughter asks me to call the computer director about problems with the help desk at her university, I will firmly bite my tongue and politely say no. •
Robert J. Massa is vice president for enrollment and college relations.