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The Kids Are Alright; Parents Will Be, Too

Across the country, families have been packing their children (and a roomful of their children’s possessions) into trucks and SUVs and heading for college. It’s a big day for parents and students alike.

For the colleges, though, it’s just one more start to one more school year. Some of them wish the parents would just go home already. This, at least, is the gist of a recent New York Times article.

I will grant that there is some separation anxiety. The classic symptoms — tears and tantrum-filled goodbyes — are not unusual outside freshman dorms at this time of year. Especially the tears. Yes, I know separation anxiety is a developmental stage that is supposed to occur in toddlers, not aging Baby Boomers, but underneath our graying hair, are we that different?

The colleges don’t seem to think so. Some have instituted formal parting ceremonies or hard deadlines for parents to remove themselves from campus. The colleges know the students are ready. They seem to think that if they can just make the parents let go, the grown-ups will begin adjusting to a healthy and independent life while their kids are away.

One administrator’s comment, reported in The Times, particularly rubbed me the wrong way. “These are the baby-on-board parents, highly invested in their students’ success. They do a lot of living vicariously, and this is one manifestation of that,” suggested Houston Dougharty, vice president of student affairs at Grinnell College.

While some parents do live vicariously through their children, most are not lingering out of some desire to relive their own college experience. “Invested” might not be the precise word Dougharty wanted; “involved” would be more accurate.

The schools mentioned by The Times are mainly selective or highly selective four-year colleges, many of which have a sticker price as high as $50,000 per year. These incoming students are not putting themselves through college.

In fact, sending a child to this sort of school is a multi-generation commitment that begins almost at birth. I vividly remember watching two mothers, standing outside our daughter’s preschool classroom, discussing how lacrosse and field hockey would help their girls stand out from the crowd of Ivy League college applicants.

Not that sports alone (other than big-time football or basketball) will get anyone into a highly competitive university. In large part because these schools themselves compete for higher rankings in various publications’ “top schools” lists, they want applicants who have developed a diagnostic test for a deadly disease, or who have written a sonata that has been performed by a major metropolitan symphony. At the very least, they expect students to have provided potable water to an impoverished African village.

These are 18-year-olds.

Such students exist only through an intense team effort that is usually quarterbacked by their parents. Colleges seem to expect parents to sign a form, hand over a large check, and then evaporate. That is not going to happen. If, say, a bureaucratic problem should arise, not many parents want to leave a teenager in charge of battling a tenured and imperious administrator.

You don’t hear much about a “generation gap” anymore. Today’s kids talk to their parents. Sure, they have their private Facebook lives (private from us, anyway), but these students, the lucky ones attending the best schools in the country, have a support network that they have relied on to make it to this point. They don’t have to face the world alone.

They even know that, should they need it, they can rely on this same support after college. Between the recession and the cultural shift toward spending more of the 20s experimenting with jobs and relationships, more of them are doing just that.

There are other students, of course, who are not as fortunate. These students must make their way through school and through life entirely on their own abilities, without the parental wingmen at their side. They are the ones who must make certain they have everything they need on that first morning of college, because they don’t have parents who will do it for them.

Most of them will be fine, just like most of the more fortunate kids. But they have a tougher road ahead, and they deserve respect and empathy.

College is certainly, in part, about independence. But it will never again be as it was in my era, when my parents were 2,500 miles away and I only had one expensive 10-minute phone call with them per week. That was enough for me to get by, but life would have been easier if the world were as small then as it is today.

Today’s parents and their children can decide, together, how often they should communicate. Some students might still be happy with a weekly phone call, though evening and weekend cell phone plans mean they probably get more than 10 minutes. Some students may instant message their parents every night. But the choice of how much contact is appropriate belongs to families, not college administrators.

The colleges can relax. All those parents will go home eventually. They will be fine and so will their kids. Colleges need to understand, as parents are coming to understand, that adulthood is an evolution rather than an event. When we ask this much of students, we need not ask them to do it alone.

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