Should college students break up with their parents?

Snow-plow parents: Those who clear every obstacle out of the way of their children.

Road-grader parents: Those who smooth out the bumps in life for their kids.

Yet two more terms I've heard, thanks to this morning's discussion of helicopter parents on MPR's The Daily Circuit.

Below is the program's live-blog session, which focuses on listeners' tweets and comments. I've got my own live-blog-style quickie transcript after that.

I'll be posting the audio when I get it. The conversation is pretty pointed, as the transcript indicates.

Here's the show's Web page, which contains links to articles, one of which helped form the basis of this morning's discussion.

Here's my transcript, though it's briefer and, of course, not verbatim:


Terry Castle: English literature professor at Stanford since 1983. She recently wrote "Don't Pick Up: Why Kids Need to Separate From Their Parents"

Marjorie Savage: Parent program director at the University of Minnesota, serving as the liaison between the University and the parents of its 29,000 undergraduates

Miller: Terry, so what’s the anecdote you mentioned in your article?

Castle: I had one student who said she spoke or texted or e-mailed her mother six or seven times a day. I asked, “What do you talk about?” She said, “I talk about the professor or the class or give her an update.” To me it’s like walking around with the umbilical chord attached. It’s so much different from what I was used to as a student 30 or 40 years ago. But my college class, whom I was telling this to, didn’t understand me.

Castle: So many of these kids have been overachievers since infancy – and managed by their parents to do so. Everything has been scheduled to the minute by their parents their entire lives. They’ve had very little free time they can spend creatively, and that free time is what they need. I contrast this with my own college experience – before the digitalization of life. I spoke to my mom once every two weeks, if that.

Caller: I can sympathize. I can understand the parental point of view. I just can’t help myself. My son just graduated Saturday. I was a helpful resource. He’d send me papers, have me proofread them, offer suggestions. I’m a college professor. I’m a resource.

Savage: It’s certainly not unusual for students today to be in touch on a regular basis. We often talk about the 1970s like it’s the norm. But today, colleges, digital communication, life itself is not like the 1970s. We can’t base life on the 1970s.

Caller: I’m a recent grad. It’s so ridiculous that people are dependent on their parents. I see a number who can’t get a job without the help of their parents. My mom and dad gave me advice, but didn’t do things for me. I think I’m better for it.

Miller: Part of the implication of this is that it goes far beyond college. Employers say parents are running interference for their kids and getting too involved.

Castle: Parents are in a bind. It takes so much effort to get kids into the best schools. But it all starts so early – in preschool. And we pile it all on the kids -- all those tests, extracurricular activities and so on. I find it disturbing. Proofing your kids’ papers? That’s too much.

Caller: I’m probably a bit of a snow-plow parent. I hover. It really gets down to finances. I don’t want them to make the mistakes I did. My parents didn’t know about college. I want it all to be efficient and cost-effective.

Miller: But aren’t mistakes necessary to learn?

Caller: Yes, but it’s awfully costly.

Savage: Yes, students do learn from mistake. But some are indeed very costly. And some parents do intervene because of the consequences of a big mistake. And they’re afraid for their children’s physical safety or mental health. So you need to dig and ask what the underlying cause is. It may be a family problem or financial problem.

Savage: The dramatic stories are the ones most often being told. Most parents are appropriate in their children’s lives. Some parents don’t call when they should be helping don’t make that move because they don’t want to be seen as helicopter parents.

Castle: There are extreme cases. I’ve had calls from irate parents and one from a parent who was staggeringly intrusive and manipulative. But there’s a feedback loop that’s intense, and the student’s independence doesn’t develop. If your mother or father is reading your papers for you, that’s problematic. I believe fervently that we too often sentimentalize the parental relationship. We presume the parents are not neurotic, but open the newspaper and you’ll find that parenting across the country is a hit-or-miss affair. In some cases, if parents are exerting a negative influence – which often happens -- students need to orphan him or herself, metaphorically seeking. It’s a harsh reality, I know. It impinges on a lot of issues – digital communication, for example. You’re always connected.

Caller: Parental interference also happens in real life. I was a superintendent in school where an employee was fired for misconduct. His mother called and said, “Aren’t you think you’re being a little hard on Douggie?” And this guy was in his mid-30s, married with children.

Miller: Aren’t you stealing some of the independence that college should provide, and thus depriving them of skills?

Savage: Yes, they shouldn’t be involved at the adult level. We at colleges need to help parents learn what’s appropriate. But we can’t control what goes on outside of college. Parents have been told for a long time to be involved in their children’s education.

Miller: Are the parents receptive?

Savage: They’re very excited about it. When we first said they should let go, they said their children aren’t ready. Now they’re asking us what else they should be doing.

Castle: I’m sure these parents are well-meaning, but some of these parents sound like idiots. This is in loco parentis gone mad. Since WWII we’ve had this idea that children need to be protected from every danger. The whole culture of risk-avoidance is so huge and combined with legal/litigious implications. I’m glad that university officials try to keep an eye on this. But the level of treating students as children – this is a new historical development.

Savage. I may have misspoke. In the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, universities did tell parents, “Back off, we have it.” Now we say, “You do have a role – with stuff we can’t deal with – physical health, mental health, financial education, alcohol.”

Castle: But I guess what I find startling is the babyishness of all this – college administrators part of this big risk-avoidance group.

Caller: One young woman is ready to move out of the house. She’s 23. But her parents are making her feel guilty for going. She has such a codependent relationship with them.

Castle: Part of growing up is being able to see your parents more or less objectively to the point that you could say, “Yes/No, my parents are/were very good parents, or aren’t good in this way or that way.” There’s so much sentimentality built into notions of these relationships. For all the brainwashing that the culture gives us, the overinvolved mother or father – sometimes the student is more grown up than the parents. And the student has to discover that. One must make his own destiny even if that means painful discoveries.

Caller: This is really a symptom of what’s going in society. You’re not treated as an adult if you’re a recent grad or under 30, whether you’re at the store or having cable installed. I don’t try using my parents as a shield. (For example) I have to tell people (on the phone), “No, this is my own account.”

Savage: There are a lot of cultural factors.

Miller: One listener calls this kind of parent a “road grader parent” who smooths out the bumps in their childrens’ lives. Another listener writes in, “To me, it depends on the kid. I have three. One is independent. One was independent into the mid-20s. One may need help for the rest of life.”

Thanks for joining us.

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