A story on MSNBC yesterday asked, Has the college sendoff always been so tough? Alongside the piece is a video from the Today show, subtitled, “As NBC’s Kevin Klein reports, when it comes time to say goodbye on campus, it’s the parents who’ve got issues.”
I’ve noticed an abundance of these stories lately — including one a few weeks back in the NY Times, Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home — perhaps because my own freshman son is freshly deposited in Baltimore, at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
I understand the entertainment value of mocking these hyper-controlling “Velcro parents” who have a hard time letting go. Anecdotes abound of parents out of control — like the mother who camped out in her daughter’s dorm room to help the “transition” to college.
Even less kooky stories are popping up: At St. Olaf College in Minnesota, incoming freshmen view a video with their smiling, crying parents waving a collective goodbye. First-year students at the University of Chicago have a new ritual in which they walk their parents to the university gate as bagpipes swell with (presumably) a wailing, farewell tune. Morehouse College does something similar, and the gates swing shut behind them. The University of Minnesota says it sneakily invites Moms and Dads to a parent reception during check-in, as if the parents are toddlers in need of distraction from their meddling. And at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, a goodbye reception includes an unofficial “crying room,” set up with tissues and a counselor.
The not-so-subtle message here is, of course, Parents: Get out. Let go. Back off. Get a life. And let your kids have one, too, will you?
Perhaps it’s just me, but that message strikes me as a little discordant, and even a little unfair. As MSNBC points out, we live in a culture where parents are practically required to orchestrate the lives of their kids — or as least be intimately involved. Partly that’s because kids are more scheduled today that even before. Partly it’s because technology enables immediacy and connectivity — I’m talking about cell phones and Skype and texting and the like. But fundamentally it’s because we parents are more involved as parents; we take our jobs seriously, every step of the way. For better or for worse.
You might be tempted to argue whether that involvement is a good thing or a bad thing. You could say that the ambitions and the neediness of parents is to blame — who doesn’t know someone who has made a career out of managing her child’s life, to an annoying degree? But that’s an issue for another day. The reality is that, for most of us, our involvement is expected and encouraged, subtly and sometimes, not-so-subtly. The backbone of so many programs that enrich our kids is the volunteer organizing and/or financial support of parents. At the local level, that’s the Little League team and soccer programs and the like. But more than that, too: Regional dance teams, summer arts programs, robotics camps, or whatever it is that excites your kid. All the way through childhood.
That’s always been the case, perhaps — volunteer parent-coaches have always been the backbone of local sports programs, for example — but the stakes are higher now: Sports tournaments that require families to pack up and drive hours to a weekend event, including hotel overnights, aren’t unusual. Did most of our parents participate at that level? Did we? Did your school ever participate in a sports tournament in Georgia, funded by parents, as my own son did? Did your middle school organize class trips to NYC, funded by parents? Did your mom ever drive you to dance school 5 nights out of every week, and would she have been expected to help with fundraising for the Performance Team?
For better or worse, that’s the culture we live in. Parents who don’t step up are slackers. Although most of us do it all. Gladly. And institutions and organizations, for the record, also gladly play into that, driving it and exploiting it. (Although maybe exploiting is too harsh a word. At the very least, they capitalize on it. And continue to develop and entrench it as part of the ritual of parenting.)
Colleges play the game of involving parents, too: It seemed that half the marketing MICA did was directed at us parents, enticing us to realize how awesome their art school is. (And, for the record, it is.) Parents have the money and thus control the decisions; so it makes sense that institutions all through a child’s life are increasingly looking for parent support and involvement.
So the discord for me comes in when articles like this — and some colleges themselves — make such a spectacle of “cutting the cord,” telling us to “go home” so our kids can bloom. Setting up things like formal goodbyes at the gates and “crying rooms” seem inconsistent with how we (as parents) are supposed to… well, parent. We have a lifetime of encouraged involvement in our kids lives, and then we are supposed to do as our parents did? Just say goodbye, already, and quit your crying? Don’t let the door hit you in the ass?
I’m not suggesting hovering is the answer. In fact, we do need to go home. And almost two weeks ago, I did, leaving my thrilled son behind.
But this isn’t about me; rather, it’s about how there seems to be something missing in the news coverage, a nuance that fails to recognize the complexity that defines parenting today. An acknowledgment that we’ve raised our kids differently, for better or worse. And a lack of recognition on the part of institutions that gladly exploit that involvement to their benefit, and then roll their eyes at these sappy parents after the check is cashed.
In other words, the point isn’t that parents these days have “issues.” The point is that our society supports and encourages parents to be more involved than ever for the first 18 years of a child’s life, and then mocks them when that inevitable drop-off day comes, and we can’t drop them with quite the same finality our own parents might have. So then? Parents come off badly. Over-involved “Velcro-parents,” desperately in need of a life.
But the reality is much more nuanced than that, isn’t it? It’s the parents who come off badly, when the entire culture is really what’s to blame.
That is, if blame is even the right word.