TOPICS > Education

Essayist Looks at Separation of Parents, Kids Off to College

August 28, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour Essayist: How pretty they look, pristine, these summertime college campuses. Just the occasional stroller, professor, administrator.

But you can feel it: the calm before the onslaught. Fall coming. The imminent arrival of student bodies.

And in their giddy mix, the freshmen, toting their wears and their apprehensions into their dorm rooms. Is this home? How can this be home?

And hard on their heels, their anxious parents, carrying boxes, smiling bravely, hearts on their sleeves. Sure, there are some parents perfectly happy to see their offspring head off. But for many parents of means, the habit of serious parental involvement is long and deep.

I see it everywhere around me, well-meaning adults involved in every aspect of their children’s lives, from the snugglies (ph) to the soccer matches, toting and tutoring, hugging and hovering. Fathers often involved now as much as mothers. So much love; so much entwinement.

This has become such an issue that many universities and colleges now make it a big point to counsel parents to please back off. Let your kids be. Let them make their own choices, pick their own majors.

I know. I was invited by my niece to attend with her, her University of Michigan orientation, and that was a big part of the message we parents and surrogate parents heard. Sitting there, course catalogue in hand, circling the classes I thought she just had to take, I smiled. I’d been caught meddlingly red-handed.

So where does it come from? Love, sure. Also from the less attractive desire and need to have a successful kid you can dote on and brag about to friends or even strangers via a bumper sticker, the straight-A student, the sports star, the musical prodigy.

But underneath a lot of it is fear. We have a lifelong habit of trying to keep these kids safe in a world grown more menacing. Car seats and bike helmets gave way to warnings about sexual predators and AIDS, not to mention stories about the perils of college binge drinking and campus suicides. And now, of course, there is the long shadow of 9/11 and the terrorists with their random madness.

The temptation is to hover over your college freshman, even long distance. All of that made much easier to do by cell phones and e-mail. No question: Technology is a big factor.

These kids have had cell phones practically from the moment they could talk, using them not just to chat with friends, but often to check in with parents who, of course, were only too happy to be able to do the same.

In some ways, it’s been great, touching, this tetherment, the absolute opposite of the neglected latchkey kids we used to hear so much about. But now it’s time to back off, let these young people bloom and flail and grow and make their own choices and their own mistakes. If not now, when?

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.