Higher education administration, believe it or not, holds many surprises. I thought readers might enjoy reading about one I have encountered with ever greater frequency since I started this work in 2001. That is the interactions with and presence of the parents of college students on the college campus. When I went to college, my parents barely slowed the car down when they dropped me off. No one hung around to hang curtains in my room. They couldn’t wait to get home and transform my room to meet another pressing need. I don’t remember what that need was, but when I called home three weeks later saying I was homesick, my mother asked if I could wait until Thanksgiving to come back. I never lived home again. And I was not the only one! Most of my college friends never returned home again to live. Things have changed a lot since then. What has surprised me time and again is how much that has changed and the many ways in which parents involve themselves in their children’s college lives.
By now, the helicopter parent is a cliché. But they are part of our collective quotidian world in higher education. The helicopter parent is the consummate hoverer. On move-in day, he might be a little intrusive with the roommate and his roommate’s parents in an effort to check them out. Or help his son get the bed he prefers. Or he may go to the bookstore and buy the books with and for his son. He stays until the last possible moment and even a bit longer than that. And he returns to campus at the first opportunity to see how things are going. This kind of hovering is completely understandable nowadays and so commonplace that it is considered normal. But they are not the only sort of parent there is.
There is, for another, the Velcro parent. For this parent, it’s a little more painful to separate. Thus, the name. When you separate two pieces of Velcro, you hear that sound — it’s unlike any other. The parental analogue is fitful sobbing at the farewell. In fact, the idea of the farewell is so painful that the Velcro parent will often get a hotel room so that he can stay in the area for a week or two after convocation. During that time, he will pop up at meal times and in classrooms, just checking on how things are going. The final farewell comes when the parent finally has to return to his own life.
In my position, I don’t have to get too involved with the helicopter or Velcro parent. Residential life staff may have to talk to them if other students start complaining about the parent’s presence in the dorm, but college-age students are so used to having their parents around that this doesn’t come up with any great frequency.
I can have quite a lot to do, on the other hand, with the zipper and snowplow parents. To the zippers first. If you think about a zipper, you realize that it really is no good if you have just half. A zipper is not a zipper unless you have both halves. Similarly, a zipper parent feels that their child cannot function without them. (It may also be true that the parent can’t function without the child, but that’s another story.) The zipper parent will buy or rent an apartment or house and move to the college town. They will set up their household to make meals for their child and bring them to campus or invite the child and his or her friends over several times a week. The parent will pick up the laundry, take care of any dry cleaning, clean the dorm room, take the child to the doctor if they get sick, and generally make themselves available for all needs, big and small. This parent essentially uproots themselves and their lives to remain part of their daughter’s or son’s college life. When this gets tricky (except for the fact that the parent is not fully allowing the student to become an independent adult) is when the parent tries to get involved in the substantive classroom experience. Depending on the size of the class, the instructor may or may not know that the parent is attending, but when it becomes known, someone has to talk to the parent. That could be someone in my position, or it could be someone who heads a parent and family programs office which more and more colleges have. In this situation, I would talk to the student’s adviser and see what we could learn from them as well. Perhaps the student doesn’t like his parent’s presence in this way. If so, we can help the student prepare for the conversation he may want to have with the parent to ask them to let up a bit.
One of my favorite zipper parents, from years ago, was a father who had retired, so had plenty of time on his hands. He rented an apartment in the college town, which he occupied part-time. He attended his son’s initial advising appointments and had enormous influence on the fall program of courses. The father then went to each class, got the syllabus, purchased all the books, and began attending as many of the classes as he was permitted. He read along in the books and paid close attention to the assignments. No one complained. I had a vague sense that the father was still around, but he was very discreet, so there really wasn’t anything to do except keep in close touch with the son to gauge the impact on him and his transition to college. Until one day when the father called me on my cell phone to say that he had edited his son’s paper for a freshman seminar and he needed my fax number so that he could fax me the paper so that I could ensure that the edits were made. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, so I asked a clarifying question: “Who made the edits?” The father responded that he himself had. I was truly gob smacked. After asking a couple of additional questions to buy some time, I decided to approach the situation from the academic integrity point of view. I’m not sure that was the best, but it was the best I could come up with at the moment.
Since that example, there have been dozens more, and each one demands diplomacy and creativity. I keep thinking I can’t be surprised anymore, but every year I am surprised anew. This keeps the job fun, I have to admit, because the interactions can be very challenging and I do embrace challenges. You have to understand the parent’s perspective, make sure you have a solid grasp of the institution’s (and your) perspective, and then try to move the parent from theirs to yours. You have to be able to articulate in the gentlest of terms the reasons that editing your son’s papers may not be not the best way to go.
Finally, there are the snowplow parents. Snowplows move down roadways with the purposes of clearing any and all obstacles created by snowfall so that cars can drive on them unimpeded in what would otherwise be precarious conditions. Likewise, snowplow parents try to anticipate any obstacles that their child might encounter down the road and clear them for them. They make the potentially precarious landscape smooth and safe. I will offer two quick examples.
Years ago, weeks prior to move-in of her son, a mother began calling various offices, including housing, facilities, residential life, the dean of the college, development, and the advising office to ask when she could get into her son’s room to do some work. When a parent takes a scattershot approach like this one did, it can become difficult to manage. But luckily, at my college, everyone is very good about directing inquiries to the right place. This one belonged squarely to parent and family programs. It turned out that the mother didn’t just want to hang posters and put up curtains. She wanted to completely renovate, as in bring in construction people to change the walls, floors, and bathroom to make it an optimally livable environment for her son. Once my office became aware of this, my task was to give the adviser a heads up and then for the adviser to check in with the student frequently to see how he was doing. Taking the mother’s inquiry as symptomatic of issues that might impede the student’s progress and work in college, the adviser made sure to work as closely as possible with the son throughout his college career to assist him in any efforts he wanted to make, whether they were academic or non-, toward creating an independent life. After the first year of required residence, the son and his mother moved into a nearby apartment that was designed much more to the mother’s liking.
That same year, I began hearing from various corners of the college that a mother of one of my advisees was living in her son’s dorm room. Since I had established a close advising relationship with the son, I asked him to stop by and during the conversation, I posed the question. He became visibly uncomfortable and clearly didn’t want to answer. That let me know that he knew she shouldn’t be living there, but he didn’t feel able to do anything about it. Not wanting to damage the trust the son and I had, I went on to talk lightly about other things for the rest of the advising conversation. After that meeting, I asked residential life staff to stop by the room a few times in the coming week to do a check-in. They reported back that the mother did indeed seem to be in the room quite a bit. At about the same time, a number of advisers heard from advisees that someone’s mother had attended a late-night study group for an art history course and had adamantly refused to let them discuss a painting in which a penis appeared. They asked for help. It turned out to be the mother of my advisee. Through multiple conversations involving the mother, the son, residential life, and myself, we managed to get the mother to move out of the room and to stop attending study groups with her son. She said she had wanted to stay with him to lay out his clothes and make sure he took his medications. Before the end of his time here, I learned she had moved back in. This young man has graduated and gone onto graduate school.
Without a doubt, this has been the most surprising aspect of my work. I probably hear from at least one or two parents a week, via email, phone or in person. It makes me realize in very concrete ways that a fundamental shift has occurred in the nature of the parent/child relationship. I do not disparage it. Within the institutional framework, I simply take pains to work with each student to figure out what is right for them. Partnering with parents to reach common goals can be very fruitful for the student as well.