Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

College in the Age of Helicopter Parents

Barbara Hofer is having more fun than the average college professor. With her new book featured on The Early Show and in USA Today, who can blame her?

Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, is co-author of "The iConnected Parent." The book explores the reasons behind the often-creepy connection that many of today's college students have with their parents -- and what Mom and Dad can do about it.

Anybody who's recently been on the Middlebury campus can't help but notice how much time students spend on their cell phones, even walking between classes. Turns out, Hofer says, they are often talking to their parents, to report on such earthshaking topics as what they'll be doing after class or what their roommate said last night.

Research by Hofer, her students, and co-author Abigail Sullivan Moore revealed that it’s not uncommon for college students to talk and e-mail with their parents four or five times a day. Indeed, they found, the average student is in touch with a parent, via “electronic tether,” more than 10 times a week.

Does this matter?

You bet it does. Says Hofer: “Those who are talking a lot with their parents are less autonomous,” at a time of life when their primary task is to develop autonomy.

How bad is it? Hofer's research revealed that 19% of college students are e-mailing papers and other assignments home – so their parents can check their work before it’s submitted.

Sometimes young people's dependency on their parents gets truly out of hand. For example, Hofer and Sullivan felt it necessary to caution parents of high school students, when they are applying to college, against talking about where "we" are applying (as in, "We really want to get into Amherst, but we'll settle for Middlebury if we have to.").

This is the Age of the Helicopter Parent, and of the college junior who can't make up his mind what course to take without consulting mommy.

All of this sounds especially bizarre to many Baby Boomers. When we were in college, we did our best to talk to our parents as little as we could.

I remember one tortured Sunday night phone call with my parents in which I had to explain, as Christmas break approached, why they hadn't heard from me since Labor Day.

My mother, whose college career culminated in a major in Martyrdom and a minor in Guilt Creation, was especially adept at raking me over the coals about this.

But she would have been even more freaked out, had I called or written her four times a day.

So why are today’s parents and college-age children so excessively connected?

The simple answer, Hofer and Sullivan say, is that they can be. Inexpensive and ubiquitous cell phones and e-mail -- not to mention texting and Skype -- make it seem quite natural to be regularly in touch.

It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that this long umbilical cord can be choking.

Rather than having to manage their own class schedule, study habits and friendships, students can and do habitually turn to their parents. Sometimes they rely on a parent to call and wake them up each morning. Faced with even a small crisis, Hofer reports, mommy is often the first person a student will talk to.

Compare that to a couple of generations ago. Back then, by the time young adults had reached age 20 they were often married, financially self-sustaining, and themselves parents of young children.

Perhaps even more disturbing than parents' overinvolvement in the lives of their college students is what happens when they graduate. Hofer found that the frequency of communication between 20-somethings and their parents actually increases after college.

That entanglement may be part of a larger trend. Clark University psychology Professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls it "emerging adulthood." Skeptics call it "failure to thrive."

A recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, for example, reports that 40% of people in their 20s move back in with their parents at least once.

Whether one sees the daily communications between college students and their parents as sweet and touching, or as disturbingly obsessive, it's clear that American society remains ambivalent about emerging adulthood.

My Baby Boomer peers and I sometimes look back with regret on the lack of communication between ourselves and our parents when we were younger.

As we became parents ourselves, many of us resolved to be closer with our kids that our parents had been with us. We knew the cost of lost connections. And if we knew our history, we knew that it was natural -- before jet travel and socioeconomic mobility -- for two or even three generations of a family to be in daily contact, sometimes under the same roof.

As one commentator put it on the website of the Early Show after Hofer's appearance there last month, "When did it become a negative thing to be connected to family members?

But another commentator on the website, who said she worked in an office with recent college graduates, described them this way: "They can text, IM, log into assbook, & have a spreadsheet up on the PC to show they are ‘doing work.’ But they don't even know how to use a copy machine & put a presentation together. Pathetic."

So what's a college student to do?

“It doesn’t mean divorcing your parents,” says Hofer. “It means having a relationship with them, in a way of owning your own behavior, governing your own emotions, and not needing to be reminded of everything.”

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