Two different articles struck me recently. One discussed the fact that first generation students, in particular, hesitate to go too far afield in selecting a college and many go home every weekend. The other talked about the negative impacts of hovering (helicopter) parents who send their kids to college and then never quite leave them there. The first group is likely to be less affluent than the second. However, neither case is a good scenario. There needs to be a declaration of independence when students go to college.
This is not to say that families are to be left behind and neglected or unloved. Students should certainly do a better job than I did when I went off to college and my poor mother had to send me stamped self-addressed postcards that I could return so she would know I was still breathing. Not at all thoughtful of me. But I suspect I was ready to get away from some hovering and just took it too far. (I did go home for holidays and even took classmates with me.)
College is a time of transition. Adolescents are ready to take on more responsibility for themselves and have to learn sometimes that there are consequences for actions. But college is a relatively safe space to learn those lessons. Not to say that there are not risks -- hazing, for example, is behavior that can have dire consequences and goes with the college culture. But failing an exam is not the same as making a mess of a project a work and getting fired for it. Learning how to manage time and set up assignments and developing resources are workplace skills that can be learned and practiced in an environment that actually values skill development.
Being sure that the annual ritual of filing the FAFSA gets done can make the difference between getting financial aid and not. It is like paying the rent or not. A student has to learn how to become fiscally responsible while in college. They have to learn that responsibilities are to be taken seriously -- without being coached, nudged or reminded by mom.
I have seen students so affected by the parental pressure to perform that they are paralyzed by it. They are so afraid to fail, disappoint their families and be judged that they can't breathe. These are the ones whose hovering parents may lead them into depressive states or self-destructive behaviors. I remember more than one beautiful and brilliant student who has become bulimic and dysfunctional in the quest for perfection and parental approval. Many have had to use therapy to find their own paths undetermined by their hovering and well-intentioned parents.
How can these students learn who they really are when they're constantly being told what to do, who to hang out with and how to dress? At some point parents may get tired of the job and wonder how they got stuck with it when their "baby" is 30. At some point parents are not around. They should not be around when their children are finally in the workplace and hopefully in their own homes. College is the transition time for this letting go.
On the other side, there are the students who are afraid to leave home. They are not concerned about the judgment of families -- that is where they are safe. They fear the "others" who may come from more wealth, different backgrounds, religions or ethnicities. They fear that they may be found wanting and so home is where they go for affirmation -- every weekend. These are likely to be the first-generation, low-income and immigrant or minority students for whom college is both holy grail and totally intimidating. They feel they don't fit in. But how will they fit into the work world made up of the same mix of folks if they don't overcome that fear in the safe space of college? Campuses try to have programs and policies to ease these transitions.
Leaving campus to go home means that the kind of relationships that become both personally and professionally essential don't happen. Crossing paths in class or maybe a study group does not do the same thing as commiserating over dating disasters on a weekend with dorm mates or going to a concert on campus (paid for by student activities dollars). These students miss out on late night pizza or just fun. Every freshman in my dorm (now I am dating myself) went to see the opening of Mary Poppins in 1964 and came home singing. We still talk about it. We are also still close.
Students should not graduate knowing no one. That is a waste of a network and friend building opportunity. Those students who go to schools where campus life is valued develop alumni ties that become professional and personal networks. They advance through them.
The students who venture even farther -- study abroad, summer research programs -- will fare better than those who head back home to work at the local grocery for the summer. The chance to stretch and trust one's own capacities is what becoming an adult is about. Employers look for those people who take some risks. They have stories to tell and pride in their achievements.
In either case, being independent of family ties will strengthen the maturity and character of the student. Parents need to let go, or as my mother-in-law used to say, "Hold on with open hands". And students need to take the plunge into lives of self-sufficiency. Life, liberty and independence for all. A very good thing.
Visit www.collegecountdown.com to learn more about Marcia Cantarella and her new book I Can Finish College.
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