The College Drop-off: Can We Cut the Crying Parents Some Slack?

2408380913_d4c89af7d1_m A story on MSNBC yesterday asked, Has the college sendoff always been so tough? Alongside the piece is a video from the Today show, subtitled, “As NBC’s Kevin Klein reports, when it comes time to say goodbye on campus, it’s the parents who’ve got issues.”

I’ve noticed an abundance of these stories lately — including one a few weeks back in the NY Times, Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home — perhaps because my own freshman son is freshly deposited in Baltimore, at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

I understand the entertainment value of mocking these hyper-controlling “Velcro parents” who have a hard time letting go. Anecdotes abound of parents out of control — like the mother who camped out in her daughter’s dorm room to help the “transition” to college.

Even less kooky stories are popping up: At St. Olaf College in Minnesota, incoming freshmen view a video with their smiling, crying parents waving a collective goodbye. First-year students at the University of Chicago have a new ritual in which they walk their parents to the university gate as bagpipes swell with (presumably) a wailing, farewell tune. Morehouse College does something similar, and the gates swing shut behind them. The University of Minnesota says it sneakily invites Moms and Dads to a parent reception during check-in, as if the parents are toddlers in need of distraction from their meddling. And at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, a goodbye reception includes an unofficial “crying room,” set up with tissues and a counselor.

The not-so-subtle message here is, of course, Parents: Get out. Let go. Back off. Get a life. And let your kids have one, too, will you?

Perhaps it’s just me, but that message strikes me as a little discordant, and even a little unfair. As MSNBC points out, we live in a culture where parents are practically required to orchestrate the lives of their kids — or as least be intimately involved. Partly that’s because kids are more scheduled today that even before. Partly it’s because technology enables immediacy and connectivity — I’m talking about cell phones and Skype and texting and the like. But fundamentally it’s because we parents are more involved as parents; we take our jobs seriously, every step of the way. For better or for worse.

You might be tempted to argue whether that involvement is a good thing or a bad thing. You could say that the ambitions and the neediness of parents is to blame — who doesn’t know someone who has made a career out of managing her child’s life, to an annoying degree? But that’s an issue for another day. The reality is that, for most of us, our involvement is expected and encouraged, subtly and sometimes, not-so-subtly. The backbone of so many programs that enrich our kids is the volunteer organizing and/or financial support of parents. At the local level, that’s the Little League team and soccer programs and the like. But more than that, too: Regional dance teams, summer arts programs, robotics camps, or whatever it is that excites your kid. All the way through childhood.

That’s always been the case, perhaps — volunteer parent-coaches have always been the backbone of local sports programs, for example — but the stakes are higher now: Sports tournaments that require families to pack up and drive hours to a weekend event, including hotel overnights, aren’t unusual. Did most of our parents participate at that level? Did we? Did your school ever participate in a sports tournament in Georgia, funded by parents, as my own son did? Did your middle school organize class trips to NYC, funded by parents? Did your mom ever drive you to dance school 5 nights out of every week, and would she have been expected to help with fundraising for the Performance Team?

For better or worse, that’s the culture we live in. Parents who don’t step up are slackers. Although most of us do it all. Gladly. And institutions and organizations, for the record, also gladly play into that, driving it and exploiting it. (Although maybe exploiting is too harsh a word. At the very least, they capitalize on it. And continue to develop and entrench it as part of the ritual of parenting.)

Colleges play the game of involving parents, too: It seemed that half the marketing MICA did was directed at us parents, enticing us to realize how awesome their art school is. (And, for the record, it is.) Parents have the money and thus control the decisions; so it makes sense that institutions all through a child’s life are increasingly looking for parent support and involvement.

So the discord for me comes in when articles like this — and some colleges themselves — make such a spectacle of “cutting the cord,” telling us to “go home” so our kids can bloom. Setting up things like formal goodbyes at the gates and “crying rooms” seem inconsistent with how we (as parents) are supposed to… well, parent. We have a lifetime of encouraged involvement in our kids lives, and then we are supposed to do as our parents did? Just say goodbye, already, and quit your crying? Don’t let the door hit you in the ass?

I’m not suggesting hovering is the answer. In fact, we do need to go home. And almost two weeks ago, I did, leaving my thrilled son behind.

But this isn’t about me; rather, it’s about how there seems to be something missing in the news coverage, a nuance that fails to recognize the complexity that defines parenting today. An acknowledgment that we’ve raised our kids differently, for better or worse. And a lack of recognition on the part of institutions that gladly exploit that involvement to their benefit, and then roll their eyes at these sappy parents after the check is cashed.

In other words, the point isn’t that parents these days have “issues.” The point is that our society supports and encourages parents to be more involved than ever for the first 18 years of a child’s life, and then mocks them when that inevitable drop-off day comes, and we can’t drop them with quite the same finality our own parents might have. So then? Parents come off badly. Over-involved “Velcro-parents,” desperately in need of a life.

But the reality is much more nuanced than that, isn’t it? It’s the parents who come off badly, when the entire culture is really what’s to blame.

That is, if blame is even the right word.

Total Annarchy

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30 Responses to The College Drop-off: Can We Cut the Crying Parents Some Slack?

  1. Jim Spencer says:

    This is the same reaction I had when we considered sending my son to private middle school. The term “black box” came to mind, as in we will educate and nearly raise your kid as we see fit, you pay the bills and leave us alone. Although accepted we did not enroll him.

    The media has a knack for portraying the outliers as normal which generally just doesn't apply well. After 15 years of volunteering, depositing your kid at school like he is a check is not what we are practiced at, although it happens with a similar reluctance. ;-)

  2. Well, I don't know that it's about parents wanting to stick around and control their kids. It's the same reason why many family members cry at weddings or at graduations. Major chapters of life are ending. Major chapters of life are beginning. It's confusing and exciting and terrifying for all parties involved.

    I had a terrible time leaving home for college and I didn't even go far away. Many students in my year began over-drinking almost immediately. Was that an accident or a different way to deal with the same confusing feelings?

    People need to be more forgiving of each other. And the media could probably stand some self-analysis more than psycho-analyzing others. sheesh!

  3. Jen DelMonaco says:

    Thanks for doing all the “life legwork” before me. You've been such a compass for me, sorting out your feelings into a kind of guidebook for my own impending milestones with Sabrina! I hope you let it rip saying Sayonara to Ev- you do have a life, sister. The talking bobbleheads on CNN can bone off.

  4. Livepath says:

    Ann,

    Great post. .

    We said goodbye to our own last week as we put her on a plane to New Zealand. She cried, we cried… and we let her go. SHe is beautiful, 19 and spreading her wings. We are proud. We are by her side, although now more of a respectful distance than before.

    Parenting doesn't stop at 18, nor do the institutions and media take over as wards of our kids — At least not in our house. Being 18 no more makes one an adult than being 21 makes one a responsible drinker or 16 makes one a responsible driver. Adulthood is proven over time, and it's a transition that begins before 18 and continues long after. Good parents don't throw their kids to the curb… but remain present to guide, support, hold and even correct (especially if we are still paying the bills).

    I'm so tired of lazy journalism and I really have little patience for the media and institutions painting parents as ridiculous or idiots. I don't like seeing this disrespect in Disney productions (parent as idiot) and I don't like seeing it in sitcoms or news stories that take “extreme” situations and use them to “make a point.” We'd all do much better if we supported respect for parents, rather than the notion we are something to escape at the age of 18.Maybe the media and institutions ought to be celebrating good parents — rather than treating them like brain damaged clingons.

    As much as she is excited for newfound freedom, I know that our 19 year old doesn't agree with those theories, and for that, we are very glad.

    Ev may have been thrilled for his newfound freedom. However, down deep – like any boy over the age of seven, he is rooted and grounded by your consistent presence, nurturing and love. Having issues with “just letting go” at 18 doesn't make you velcro – it makes you a good parent. The media be damned!

    I am SO with you on this one. Hastily penned…

    Leigh

  5. Zane Safrit says:

    I'm not a parent. I can still see this is a great post. I'm not sure where emotional attachment to another human being became something we mocked. Sneered at a sign of weakness. Or feared like avian flu. Would it be healthier to do a rolling drop-off with one parent steering and another (or friend) tossing the kid and their belongings out the back as the car slowly rolled past the gates…with a salute and a 'See YAH!' as they accelerated off campus?

    We need more emotional attachments these days, not less. And we need more acceptance that it's ok, even healthy, to be upset or anxious or crying at this moment.

    And yes, I did cry at Old Yeller, Shane…but not Message in a Bottle.

  6. I've enjoyed the comments to this post nearly as much as the post itself. I have twice been the crying mother who needed oxygen to drop from the ceiling compartment of the vehicle as we've driven away from our sons at college. In four years, I am certain it will be even more difficult to leave my daughter, as she is our youngest. And I still can remember clearly the sight of my parents driving away from my college where they'd deposited me in August 1981 in Nevada, Mo. I was so eager to get upstairs to my new roommate and friends, yet I found myself wanting to chase their taillights into the night for just one more hug and to tell my crying mother I loved her more than she'd ever know. I don't think it's as new a phenomena as the media would like to have us think. As Abraham Lincoln said of his mother, “All I am or can ever be I owe to my angel mother.” I bet if she'd dropped him off at the U in a mini van, theirs would have been a tearful farewell, too.

  7. fitzilicious says:

    Well said Ann!

  8. I'm always so happy to see an Annarchy post pop up in my Google Reader! Another great one.

    My daughters (ages 19 & 16) and I talk every so often about how different our relationship is than what I had with my mother, who turns 89 next week.

    We talk more, about more subjects and in more depth, and (I think) want to spend more time together (or else Mom was yearning for time I didn't give her back when I was a teenager–oops).

    I deliberately set out to raise them with fewer barriers than what I felt with my mom. Not that she was cold or distant, just that I didn't feel free to discuss certain topics with her.

    The result of this effort is definitely a less inhibited range of topics (so I occasionally get to long for the bad old days when we hit the TMI zone :D but that's not much of a price to pay for knowing they'll come to me with just about anything).

    Not that I'm their friend, mind you–I'm The Mom. But a more closely connected mom. That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

    Somewhere years ago I read that we have two choices when we have children: To be our parents, or to be “not our parents.” The latter is a huge undefined territory as we seek to “correct” things we think were done wrong in our own upbringing.

    So the pendulum swings back and forth. Perhaps our kids will decide to back off a bit when they raise their own children. The media can then comment about th0se cold, disengaged parents who don't care enough about their children to stay and make sure everything's okay with their dorm rooms.

  9. Chris Blackman says:

    Hands up anyone who ever got their parenting lessons from NBC?

    …I thought not.

  10. Jackie says:

    Thank you!!! My feelings exactly!

  11. annhandley says:

    LOL.. good point.

  12. annhandley says:

    Thanks for your comments here, Barb. Yes, the pendulum does swing. Every generation believes it's invented parenting, it seems. That is to say, I have more friends that have consciously chosen to NOT be their parents than to BE their parents, to your point. It's part of owning the process, I suppose.

  13. annhandley says:

    Thanks, Mimi. The concept of oxygen masks dropping from the car interior really cracks me up….

  14. annhandley says:

    Exactly. The outliers really are nuts, aren't they? The rest of us… well, we're just parents. : )

  15. Karen says:

    Ann,
    I really think you have telepathy. I was thinking the exact same thing (and was thinking of posting my thoughts once I calmed down) as I read those articles and heard numerous speakers speak about this same issue at my son's college when I dropped him off two weeks ago. I'm glad I didn't watch the news that you mentioned because I would have thrown my shoes at the screen if I had heard one more news about us, the 'real' parents.

    What about those “Dry Cleaner Parents” (I cracked up when I heard that term) that just drop off their kids at schools – Kindergarten and up – and expect the schools to parent and raise their kids? How come media doesn't mock them? Why are 'we', the real parents, the target of their ratings?

    I am so tired of being defensive of my parenting style… 'Am I doing to much?' when I make plane reservations for sporting events. 'Am I being too involved?' when I suggest that he/she compete in a particular event. 'Am I being too controlling?' when I say, I'll drive you to the tournament 300 miles away, after school, so that he/she doesn't have to miss school to get on the only available flight in the morning.

    You are right. We are 'expected' to pay for their activities and education, and get them to actually participate. But when we say 'Boo!', we are deemed overly involved. But, regardless, I always believed in my actions and stuck to my values. I wanted to be the opposite of my own parents who assumed things got done and didn't get involved – a reflection of parenting culture back in the 60's and 70's, and not so much of their personalities. And yes, I survived. But I didn't share my failures and successes with them. We have a great relationship despite the way they parented but we can't share some of the moments in my life because they weren't 'there' when they happened.

    I want to be 'there' for my kids. Simple. Why can't the media understand that?
    One minute, media condemns absentee parents or dead beat dads and the next minute, they mock 'real' parents who are parenting.

    And for the record, my son is doing phenomenally well, is well adjusted, handling crazy academic schedule despite the first week of switching the entire semester's classes due to conflicts, and playing for the Div I Varsity sport. He has managed to get organized, eat on time, meet a ton of new friends, and even had the time to go to its first football game of the season (his first football game ever!). And I attribute that to the way I was, as an involved parent, showing him how to be organized and get things done.

    Sorry for the long comment but this was a sensitive topic for me….as you can see.

    Looking forward to your next hotly debatable post.

  16. Dave Fluegge says:

    I did not receive that from my parents; being the middle of 7 it was a little different. It was closer to receiving a call after a month and my mom wondering where I was, oh you're in college, well study hard. All of those emotions were spent on the first couple times, and by fourth time around it wasn't a big deal.

  17. epeemom says:

    Hooray! I couldn't agree with your post more.

    We dropped our one and only off at college, 1600 miles from home, three years ago. It was a one-day event. He was in the last group to move in so we dropped boxes and bags and scurried off to our separate activities. As the day wore on it became more surreal.

    At the last “reception” we cut out early on the excuse that we had to unpack the luggage in order to take it back with us. I begged him to let me make his bed just once-just so I could cry and have my back to him. All of a sudden, the three of us were huddled in his hot, cramped room crying.

    You see we were not just going to miss our son, we were going to miss a very funny, smart human being that we share our lives with. And he was going to miss his Unconditional Support Team.

    We still miss each other like crazy, but he is little by little spreading his wings. I think it will be a magnificent flight.

  18. Lizzil says:

    As usual Ann you express so many of our feelings so beautifully. Our media is so frequently critical and fear mongering – the extremes make the better story but rarely shares a complete message. You and your son know and that's what matters… The relationships we have with our kids (as evidenced by the responses) are so much healthier, deeper and richer than those we had with our parents where children were to be seen and not heard or at least not in the way!

  19. Peter says:

    We drove to D.C. (about two hours away) on Sunday of Labor Day Weekend to visit Son No. 2, who we can tell from Twitter is struggling a bit to adjust. Had lunch and went to the zoo. Made Mom, Little Sister, Little Brother (and Dad) feel better; Son No. 2 seemed happier too. Twitter entry afterward said he missed us.

    I don't particularly care if his school wanted us there or not (although they are pretty good about such things).

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  22. Mindy says:

    Thanks, Ann. Another great post! Your analysis about why we are more involved than our parents is spot-on. In my case, I try to follow the lead of my daughter (who is now a college sophomore). I'm glad that she doesn't have to distance herself in the way I did with my parents many moons ago! She calls once or twice a day (!) for nano-conversations, which are speed monologues (e.g., updates); and then maybe once a week, she wants to actually talk (that is, have a conversation). We are very close, and yet she is independent. And like many others who have mentioned the hard part, I miss her like crazy! But I'm excited about where she's headed in the universe…

  23. GiGi says:

    Ann, great post.

    While my kids are not yet at that age, I have seen my friends and sister go through this sadness and excitement. I am lucky that we're not there yet, but do know it will be difficult to not see someone I love very much on a regular basis. As another person commented, while our kids can drive us crazy, there are some of us who still actually like having them around for better or worse.

  24. GiGi says:

    Ann, great post.

    While my kids are not yet at that age, I have seen my friends and sister go through this sadness and excitement. I am lucky that we're not there yet, but do know it will be difficult to not see someone I love very much on a regular basis. As another person commented, while our kids can drive us crazy, there are some of us who still actually like having them around for better or worse.

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  26. Diana says:

    People asked us how we thought we would like the empty nest, and we said – Bring it on _ PLEASE! 

    When I went away calling home was cost prohibitive, but today, phone calls are free, and skype on the computer is free, so I don’t get the issue.  I don’t call every day though I try to remember to call once a week and if they were busy studying or in the middle of dinner, I’d tell them to call me back when they were free. 

    This year we packed my daughter into her car and her boyfriend’s truck and said good bye in the driveway.  It gets easier, though we didn’t really have issues.  It’s getting to be our time again and we are enjoying it.

  27. Chris Correia says:

    Having just had, three hours ago, a tearful  goodbye with my daughter at Georgetown (more than 1,200 miles away from our home in the Midwest), I take  issue with the judgement of the emotion that accompanying parting signifying a defect in personality or relationship. Further, a tearful goodbye and a parent camping out in a dorm room during a transition stand are two widely separate points on a continuum of experience/reaction. To group them into the same cluster on that continuum is misjudgment at best, stupidity at worst.

    My wife and I were, I think, appropriately involved in, and supportive of, my daughter’s life up to this point. We gave her a lot of leeway in her choices and activities and let her have a fairly good amount of independence, which included letting her make bad decisions and having mishaps. While we spent parts of these past two days with her at GU we observed a lot of parents who, to us, obviously were much too absorbed in and directive of, their children and their lives. Yet, we too cried, as they presumably did.

    We should be condemned? I think not. The tears, as best I can decipher them, mean “We love you dearly. We are proud of you, and excited for you. We will miss you but, moreso, will miss the life that has been thus far. Yet, of course, we look forward to the life that will be.”

    There is nothing wrong with these sentiment and the tears that express them. We are pleased to feel that we’ve helped prepare our child for this new phase of life and we gladly and willingly send her off to the world. That we can feel emotional at this transition point is, I think, very natural, very human, very real. The emotion, the crying, the parting are a transition event. It is very presumptuous to read too much into it. It’s people, family, and love. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is a lot right, for people that are open, honest and well adjusted, at least.

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  29. Mom says:

    I appreciate your words of wisdom. We live in FL, and our daughter chose to go to a state school in the NE. As incoming Freshmen, she is living in a dorm, however, we couldn’t get any measurements of the room, and were not allowed to ship anything in, in advance. Even though we used BBB Campus&Beyond, and also the ContainerStore, we had tons of running around to do to get the other needed items. We were definitely limited by how much would fit in our rented SUV. We began moving in her in Saturday morning; we did the schlepping, so our daughter could meet other students. By Sunday evening, we still had two (2) items remaining to get; a tv and bike. After a meeting with CA of her dorm, our daughter texted us saying we knew all summer what she needed, and to just go home.

    No “thank you for all you did,” No hug good-bye … very hurtful … we didn’t get the tv or bike, and boarded our plane home.

    I hugged my own parents good bye, as they said, “don’t let the door hit you in a-s.”

    I am sure we will hear from her via text message when she needs more money.

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