Several weeks ago at the bookstore, while waiting on kids and poking lazily through the new releases table, I found a title that intrigued me: The iConnected Parent. I grabbed it because I thought it was one of those diatribes against technology and children, and I always get a kick out of seeing how people think my precious gadgets are undermining my family values.
Well, you know what they say about judging and book covers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the selection was not subjective, but rather a research-based account from Dr. Barbara Hofer, a professor of psychology at Middlebury, and Abigail Sullivan Moore, a journalist on various adolescent topics for The New York Times. The subject? An interesting phenomenon occurring between today’s uber-wired kids and their parents when the kids leave home for college.
The twist is that the authors weren’t looking at how children were over-using technology or frying their brains; they were looking at how parents—having become accustomed to communicating with their children anytime, anywhere—are having a harder time letting go when kids fly the nest. They were curious to see how our new forms of constant connection might affect a child’s ability to become independent at a time when, traditionally, independence is the ultimate four-year degree.
Before I go any further, I want to state that I haven’t yet read this book in its entirety. I intend to, but (shockingly) I haven’t had time. I have, however, read about the book in several locations, and I’ve read interviews with the authors. And frankly, I’m fascinated by the subject because I have three young children of my own. It comes down to this: If they are writing about what today’s college students are facing thanks to ubiquitous cell phones and the ease of email, what on Earth will go on when my own kids are headed out the door? Today’s freshmen didn’t grow up watching SpongeBob on the iPad, Skyping between upstairs and downstairs, or texting each other at age six while sitting on the same sofa.
What am I in for?
Back in my day…
When I left home for college in the fall of 1992, 18-year-olds did not have cell phones. Most did not have laptops. I had never heard of email. I took with me a Smith-Corona word processor, which I thought was pretty darn cool, plus a bunch of boxes and a bicycle. I flew from DFW to the San Francisco airport, and in a matter of hours, I was in a new world and a new time.
When I checked in with my mom and dad later that evening, I did so with a hasty call on a corded white telephone with large black number buttons. I remember that phone well. Over the course of my first year away from home—a year that saw so many changes for me and for my family—that black and white phone was how we stayed connected. In fact, with the exception of a few care packages and cards, and one or two in-person visits, that phone was the only way we stayed in touch. We spoke maybe two or three times a week.
Through that phone, on an October evening, I delivered the news that I wasn’t going pre-med after all. A killer organic chemistry midterm dashed my hopes and drove me to new studies. Through that phone, I was summoned home rather abruptly for Spring Break when I hadn’t been planning on going home at all, only to learn when I arrived that my mother had breast cancer. Through that phone two months later, on my birthday, I called to check on my mother and heard her weak voice trying to sound something other than pained as she—prostrate on the bathroom floor with chemo nausea—wished me a happy day. And through that phone, I immediately called a florist and had get-well flowers delivered; it was a pathetic attempt to offer relief and love from across an unbearable distance.
Constant Contact Generation
Needless to say, things are different these days. Most kids who leave for college look like they just robbed Best Buy and the Apple store. But more important than the devices they bring with them is the way kids and parents have come to depend on those devices for round-the-clock portable communication with each other. Moms can check up on their children by cell phone, by email, by calling professors, Skyping, Facebooking, logging on to school grade systems. And rather than look for their own answers, kids can contact moms and dads so easily for any kind of question imaginable.
Let’s look at some of the findings from the group studied by Hofer and Moore in The iConnected Parent:
- On average, students and parents communicated with each other 13.4 times per week; the students were initiating the contact almost as frequently as the parents. (To put that in perspective, that’s almost twice a day, every day of the week. For some, it was even more often.)
- Conversations were mostly between kids and their moms, and this did not vary by socioeconomic status or other variables. (It’s interesting to note, though, that almost a quarter of the research group indicated they’d like more contact with their fathers.)
After I read these statistics, two questions came to mind immediately. First, what on Earth are they communicating about every day? And second, is it a badthing for kids to be so in touch with their parents?
Hofer and Moore looked at these questions as well, and they found there was an apparent link between how often students and parents communicated, what they talked about, and how the students felt about their control over their lives away from home. In an online interview with Inside Higher Ed on September 10 of this year, Hofer explained:
“Some of these students have parents who are using the calls to continue regulating their [students’] behavior as they did in high school, reminding them what and when to study, for example, and these students are the least satisfied with the parental relationship, describing it as controlling and conflictual. Others report a ‘best friend’ phenomenon with their parents, wanting to talk to them daily to tell them everything that is going on, and these students seem to be trading off autonomy for closeness. By contrast, there are families with moderate contact who have learned how to maintain a connection but in healthy ways that permit growing independence of thought and behavior.”[i]
So the long and short of it is that parents are tempted to use 24/7 contact options like email and cell phones to stay on top of what a child is doing while away at college, much the same way they did while the child lived at home and went to high school. While this is an admirable thing—to want to see your child succeed and help them manage the often daunting workload—this is not always what a child wants. Nor is it what we have traditionally allowed to transpire when kids leave home. They need to make mistakes and learn to handle responsibilities. If we interfere too much in this process, we risk robbing them of valuable life skills and lessons. And frankly, I think we go against what we, as parents, have been guiding them towards since the day each child was brought into this world: independence.
Hofer and Moore also found that students were equally guilty of running back to their parents for assistance with schoolwork or other problems. The less independent kids would sometimes email papers back to Mom and Dad for a final check before turning them in—which some students and professors thought of as cheating, while other students, according to Moore, “simply saw it as one more resource to which they had access.”[ii] And this dependence didn’t always end when students graduated from college. Says Moore:
“The close connection between parents and their college students carries over into the work force, with parents accompanying kids to interviews or trying to help negotiate salaries. Parents are also pushing the boundaries of standard business etiquette. For example, in lieu of a spouse or significant other, some young employees bring their mom to the office holiday party, summer barbecue or on a business trip. One young employee got reprimanded for spending too much time on Facebook while at work. His excuse? He had to respond constantly to mom’s comments via Facebook.”[iii]
Really? I’m not sure I buy the excuse, but I can see how there would undoubtedly be some weird, new response instinct that forms when parents and children have years of experience communicating via instant social media. Your phone dings at you—and you know you have a comment to reply to, a text message to reply to… how do you ignore it? Should you ignore it? After all, it’s Mom.
Building self-sufficiency in a wired age
In The iConnected Parent, Hofer and Moore offer some valid suggestions—based on research—about how to avoid some of the traps that today’s round-the-clock technology has set for us. Here are some of their tips:
- Be mindful of who is initiating communication: let your child take the lead. If your child sounds annoyed when you call, back off.
- Before you pick up the phone, decide who will benefit from this call: you or your child.
- Give your kids space to lead their own lives at college, and know the boundaries. Respect their privacy.
- Know how to recognize and respond to venting. Listen, but don’t rush to problem solve.
- Don’t be afraid to let your kids stumble or be unhappy temporarily.[iv]
I’m still baffled by how this will unfold for my children. They are so young, with so many years ahead of them for even newer forms of communication to emerge. Ultimately, I think I have to ask myself what “independence” means today, and what it will mean in the future. Is it a state of emotional well-being, where kids are mentally prepared to handle life’s challenges on their own? Is it the maturity to know when to go it alone and when to seek help? Is it the ability to cram seven whole days into a one weekly phone call with the parental units—and feel okay with the idea of not sharing every little thing?
In all honesty, I think it’s a realistic combination of all these things, and it’s something that parents start practicing very early, when we are forced to make difficult decisions regarding discipline. That’s because, as I see it, discipline is a thing that reminds parents that we, too, must learn to be independent from our children from time to time. We, too, must make hard choices on our own—and it’s not always easy.
Here’s an example. When I was almost four years old, my friend Emmy and I thought it would be tremendous fun if we “washed” her mother’s good dining room chairs with shaving cream. They had blonde-toned straw seats, and the shaving cream felt delicious as it squished between the coarse strands.
Until Emmy’s mom walked in and caught us in the act.
I don’t remember what she said or did, but I remember fleeing like a bandit with Emmy on our Big Wheels. We pedaled frantically over the gravel driveway and down the cul de sac to my house, where we went into hiding.
I often reflect on this stigma from my past. What did Emmy’s mother say? Did she tell my mother? What did my mother say? I’m curious, of course, because I now have a three-year-old who is quite capable of committing such an act (or worse), and I wonder what I would do in the same situation. Laugh it off? Ground someone? In my memory, I can only recall looking for a safe place. I wanted to find my mom and some comfort because I was scared of getting into trouble, even if my mom was the one punishing me. Did my mom and Emmy’s mom allow anger, frustration, and love to coexist peacefully?
To me, this is the toughest parental challenge: teaching independence without sacrificing the idea of home, of safety, of Mom and her apron strings. We want our kids to learn right from wrong, how to stand on their own two feet, but at the same time, we know there will never come a time when we wouldn’t offer a hug to a child in need of one. I’m 36 years old, and I still need hugs from my mom. We call, and we email, and sometimes it’s mundane. But it’s always meaningful. When you leave home, after all, you don’t go back. Whatever conversation exists beyond that point is not just the entrance to a new relationship—it is the relationship.
So why didn’t anyone tell me that the last night I spent in my bedroom before leaving for college would be my last actual night as a child in the home of my parents? At the time, it just seemed like I was going to sleep on the night before a trip. I was merely packing and moving some things, getting on a plane to California, and heading to a different school. No one pulled me aside and said, “Hey, you do realize this is it, right?” No one asked me if I was ready. I didn’t know it was time to be ready. I wasn’t sure what I would need to be ready for.
I think that’s how independence washes over us, like a slow and subtle sunrise; it isn’t until the sky is fully light that we realize the darkness has disappeared. We can’t pinpoint the moment that it happened, or how we felt, but it takes place nonetheless, and there is no turning back. I didn’t begin a transition to independence on that morning I left for college. I began 18 years earlier, learning day by day by day how to walk that fine line between “I need you” and “I’ll do it myself.”
That line doesn’t end. We never completely sever the apron strings. I think—whether they are phone cords or Ethernet cables—we’re okay if we just untie the strings and let them dangle, loose enough to be unrestricting, but easy to grab onto when we all need something to hold.
[i] http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/09/10/hofer (Golden, 2010)