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

August 22, 2008, 12:44 pm

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 r
eader, 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.

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