Why Parents Should Stop Coddling Their Kids and Let Them Live Their Own Lives
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
My 20-year old daughter, Allison, who has her own apartment in Philadelphia, sent me a text the other day: “I need socks and dandruff shampoo.” I laughed aloud and texted back, “I need deodorant and coffee filters.”
I had a fleeting thought that she was actually asking me to pick up those items for her, but I preferred to think we were playing a cellphone game. I try not to be a helicopter parent. Experience as a mother and professor has taught me how badly that can backfire.
Instead, I prefer a more hands-off approach, which came naturally. From the time Allison turned 18 something kicked in, and I simply no longer had any desire to know her work schedule or pick up her tampons. I remember wondering if this was as instinctual as nursing her or bundling her up when she was a baby. But that’s not what I see at Drexel University, where I teach and where my daughters go to school. The vast majority of my students talk to their parents three times a day or more. One student’s mother called when she didn’t hear from him for a few days. He picked up the phone, but he was in the library and so he whispered “hello.” She accused him of being hung over or drunk, even though it was about 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. He tried to convince her, avoiding eye contact with those library patrons giving him exasperated looks, but she insisted that he take a picture of himself, in the library, holding a newspaper with that day’s date, and send it to her. I cannot shake how similar that is to a hostage situation.
As a professor, I’ve always treated my students as autonomous beings, telling them on the first day of class that I will not follow up with them on missed classes or assignments as other instructors might. It’s my tough love way of getting them to become independent thinkers and to do for themselves.
But I can’t help contrasting that to the way their parents treat them. In Allison’s senior year of high school, parents rolled their eyes over filling out their sons’ and daughters’ college applications, expecting commiseration from me. I smiled and nodded and hoped my face didn’t show the absolute incredulity I felt. Didn’t they see the disservice they were doing their children? Two years later when my daughter Hayley graduated, the situation was worse. Parents would use the word “we” — as in, “We’re looking at Rutgers,” or “We’re thinking he should take a year at community college until we figure out what he should focus on.” My parents didn’t see my college campus until they came to visit. My roommate and I drove ourselves to orientation, and we still laugh remembering how we ended up a state further south, forced to ask a toothless gas station attendant in Virginia where we were.
College is a perfect middle ground for this age group: Students are forced to make their own choices and take responsibility for them, but help and guidance are there if they need it. What I see, though, is that the self-reliance they should be developing is thwarted by parental involvement. An academic advisor at Drexel told me the other day what she is most surprised by is how students “tolerate parental interference.” Even worse, “They want and ask their parents to come to advising meetings.” I know a mother who watches the surveillance cams at her child’s school, for hours, hoping he will randomly walk past the camera’s corner. I know a mother who requests her college-age children’s syllabuses, puts exam and project dates in her own calendar, and sends her children reminders. I know a mother who checks her kid’s debit card daily, and then calls him and questions 3 a.m. pizza purchases. My daughters are on the same campus as me, and I don’t even know what classes they are taking. But so far, they come to me with the stuff that’s more important than any 3 a.m. pizza purchase or chem quiz, and I think they do because I give them space. I let them make that choice.