Ties That Bind

Ties That Bind

It's midnight in London. A student on the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin program there can't find a taxi. She calls her mother back in the States to see if she can fix the problem.

By David Treadwell | Photos by Fred Field

It's midnight in London. A student on the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin program there can't find a taxi. She calls her mother back in the States to see if she can fix the problem. The mother immediately calls and requests help from the Colby professor who's leading the program. The professor dutifully arranges for a car service to pick up the stranded first-year.

As the children of the Baby Boomer generation enter college, the scene above is less and less the exception. A generation that has been more involved in its children's lives than any in recent memory continues to stay involved as those children head off to learn to become independent, functioning, and successful adults. Aided by technology—from cell phones to e-mail to instant messaging—the more extreme of these attentive moms and dads have even given rise to a new term that describes their continued involvement in their children's college lives. "They're called 'helicopter parents' for their habit of hovering,— a national education writer for the Associated Press reported recently.

There has been a sea change in parent-student relationships in recent years, one that has both college administrators and parents themselves wondering how much involvement is too much. At what point does parental support become counterproductive? Is there anything wrong with sharing the college experience?

Like parenting in general, there is no right or wrong approach to communicating with children who are away from home for the first time. Every situation—every child—is unique. But faculty and administrators who have witnessed various situations, and parents and students who have their own approach to separation, can offer insight into what works and what doesn't. Is there a point when a close connection between parents and students crosses from healthy to unhealthy?

Vice President for Student Affairs Janice Kassman, who has 30 years experience at Colby, says e-mail and cell phones have dramatically changed the relationship between the student and the parent and between the parent and the College.

"And that's both a blessing and a curse,— she said. "With instant communication, students sometimes turn to a parent to solve a problem rather than solving it on their own. On the plus side, parents have a much better idea of what their students are experiencing—the courses they're taking, the friends they're making, and so on. I recall a student on graduation day who, after walking across the stage, immediately called her grandmother on the cell phone to say, 'Hi, Grandma, I just got my diploma!' That one call alone overrode any doubts I have about the value of cell phones.—

Kassman advises parents to learn as much about Colby as possible and to keep contact while allowing children to maintain independence. The Colby Student Handbook and Parents Handbook offer a wealth of information about the issues that college-age students face as well as policies and procedures that outline Colby's approach to those issues, and Kassman encourages parents to be in the know. Many deans, coaches, and professors make themselves available to concerned parents, and students are more accessible to their parents now than in previous generations. "Use e-mail to get a window into your students' experience,— she said. "Don't overreact if you see a problem brewing. Be cautious before stepping in to try to solve a problem. And above all—listen.—

Kassman also emphasizes that she's always ready to do the same. "I don't cringe when parents call. I'll talk at any hour. We don't want any student to fall through the cracks.— In fact, parents can reach someone in the Dean of Students Office at Colby at any time, day or night, if it's an emergency.

But even administrators whose doors—and phone lines—are always open say instant parent-student communication can have pitfalls. Patricia Newmen, director of counseling services at Colby, tells the story of a student who called her mother after class, extremely upset, near tears. The mother called back that afternoon and asked her daughter how she was doing. "I'm fine,— replied the daughter, sounding perfectly happy. "Why do you ask?— The mother had feared her daughter was undergoing a major crisis when in fact she was just experiencing another small bump in the road.

"Of course students encounter challenges and struggles here,— Newmen said. "That's life. And there's a huge transition occurring between age eighteen and age twenty-two. But our students are remarkably resilient. They learn to figure things out and move on.—

And what is the parent's proper role in the process? "It's hard to know how long to let the rubber band stretch,— she said, "to negotiate letting go versus staying connected. My advice: be there, be flexible, and listen, listen, listen.—
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