Mom and dad's electronic tether to campus



As college students return home this month for the summer break, their parents might not notice much of a difference. In a sense, for many of them, their kids never really left.

That's because some parents and college students keep in touch several times a day through cellphones, email, Skype and other technological marvels. A horrified English literature professor writes about this constant communication in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, in "Don't Pick Up: Why kids need to separate from their parents."

"One student - a delightful young woman whom I know to be smart and levelheaded - confesses that she talks to her mother on the cellphone at least five, maybe six, even seven times a day," writes Terry Castle, who teaches at Stanford University. The student says she calls her mom whenever she gets out of class to tell her about the professors, the exam - whatever's going on at the moment.

"I'm stunned; I'm aghast," Castle writes. When she was an undergraduate, from 1971 to 1975, "all we wanted to do was get away from our parents! We only had one telephone in our whole dorm - in the hallway - for 50 people! If your parents called, you'd yell, 'Tell them I'm not here!'"

Castle never says whether her current students are different from those she taught in the past - more docile, perhaps? More obedient? But she does say that the willingness to defy or just disappoint one's parents is essential to emotional and intellectual freedom. Is the Class of 2012 at risk of remaining in mental chains?

The online responses to her essay are fascinating. One says that with parents paying as much as $55,000 a year for college, you bet they are going to check in. Another says this is probably a problem only at elite universities - the implication being that you needed to be a helicopter parent in the first place to get your kid into a top school. Another says parents are anxious because of the recession and feel they need to try extra hard to help kids find their place in the world.

Melissa Bares, who just finished her junior year at Stony Brook University, says she has friends with too-concerned parents who she describes as "babied." "They can't even make their own schedule without checking with their parents first," she says in an email.

Bares, a psychology major, speaks with her parents about school a couple of times a week - which seems normal to me. Both Bares and James Kim, another Class of 2013 student at SBU, defend parental involvement - but not over-involvement. "If a parent nags, it brings a lot of pressure," says Kim, a double major in chemistry and Asian-American Studies. He calls home about once a week. "If it's the right amount of nagging, you see students excel more."

He mentions a friend - a slacker - who could use a lot more parental oversight.

Jenny A. Hwang, who heads up mental health services at SBU, says parental involvement is crucial and can protect against alcohol and drug abuse, as well as depression and even suicide. But technology has made it so easy for parents to reach out that one of her roles is to counsel moms and dads about a healthy amount of communication.

"Parents can remain available and help students problem-solve," Hwang says, "without responding to that pull that's always there to make it all better."

Castle, the English professor, cites fictional orphans - Dorothy Gale, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins - who are heroes of their own stories, to argue that psychological distance from parents is essential for kids to grow up.

That may be true, but distance, like many things, is better in moderation.

Column first published in Newsday.