The Bond: Staying in touch when children go to college


The second in a series on the evolution of the parent-child relationship.

The big deadline for high school seniors to choose a college has passed, and parents’ thoughts are turning toward the joy of less laundry or the agony of how to pay the bills -- and perhaps toward how much they’ll be in touch with their sons and daughters come September.

It was not so long ago that parents drove a teenager to campus, said a tearful goodbye and returned home to wait a week or so for a phone call from the dorm. Mom or Dad, in turn, might write letters -- yes, with pens. On stationery.

But going to college these days means never having to say goodbye, thanks to near-saturation of cellphones, email, instant messaging, texting, Facebook and Skype. Researchers are looking at how new technology may be delaying the point at which college-bound students truly become independent from their parents, and how phenomena such as the introduction of unlimited calling plans have changed the nature of parent-child relationships, and not always for the better.

Students walking from biology class to the gym can easily fill a few minutes with a call to Mom’s office to whine about a professor’s lecture. Dad can pass along family news via email. Daily text messaging is not uncommon.

How nice, you might think.

And you might be right. Some research suggests that today’s young adults are closer to their parents than their predecessors.

But it’s complicated. Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose specialty is technology and relationships, calls this a particular sort of “Huck Finn moment,” in which Huck “takes his parents with him. We all sail down the Mississippi together.”

From the electronic grade monitoring many high schools offer parents, it seems a small leap to keep electronic track of their (adult) children’s schedules or to send reminders about deadlines or assignments. Professors have figured out that some kids are emailing papers home for parents to edit. And Skype and Facebook might be more than just chances to see a face that’s missed at home; parents can peer into their little darling’s messy dorm room or his messy social life.

Experts said the change dates to 9/11, which upped parents’ anxiety over being out of touch with their children. And the rising cost of college can threaten parents’ willingness to let children make mistakes as they learn how to be adults.

Many of today’s college students have had so much of their schedule programmed, they may not know what to do with time and solitude, said Barbara Hofer, a Middlebury College psychology professor and author with Abigail Sullivan Moore of the book “The iConnected Parent.”

Researchers are looking at these changing relationships, formed in the last few years after parents got smartphones and Facebook accounts too -- and learned how to use them.

“There’s a tremendous diversity in how kids handle this. Some maintain old rules. But for many, many young people, they grow up essentially with the idea that they don’t have to separate from their parents,” Turkle said.

“It’s about having an adolescence that doesn’t include the kind of separation that we used to consider part of adolescence,” she added. “Something has become the norm that was considered pathological.”

Hofer and colleagues surveyed students at Middlebury in Vermont and at the University of Michigan, two schools different in many ways. But at both, parents and students were in contact frequently, an average of more than 13 times a week.

“The one thing I’ve tried hard to do is not make this a helicopter story and not make it all negative,” Hofer said in a telephone interview. “The quality of relationships that many students have with their parents is really quite remarkable. That’s reported from parents and students.”

The complicated dance toward independence creates all sorts of tricky moments for both generations. The parents of today’s college students were advised to get involved in the children’s lives -- to communicate, communicate, communicate. All that talk can signal a close, useful relationship, but it also can leave kids lacking what they need to fend for themselves.

“The parent is on speed dial, the parent is on favorites. It’s about having an adolescence that doesn’t include the kind of separation that we used to consider part of adolescence,” Turkle said. “It opens them up to real vulnerabilities now and later in life.”

Parents are not always eager for such separation, Hofer said.

“We just heard so many stories, campus after campus, of parents crossing boundaries,” she said. By intervening in roommate disputes or sending daily text reminders of class work to be done, parents perpetuate a feeling that the students needn’t think for themselves because someone else was perfectly willing -- even gleeful -- to do it for them.

Have you seen the TV commercial in which two young women try to deal with an abundantly overflowing washing machine? In the end, one of them calls dad. His advice? Unplug it. A parent might laugh and cry at the thought that a young adult couldn’t figure that out.

Hofer cited a student who said she wasn’t homesick freshman year, but sophomore year her mother learned to use Skype and placed the computer on the kitchen floor so her daughter could see the family dog when it walked by.

“That brought me right back into my mom’s kitchen” the daughter told Hofer, and the young woman said she was homesick for the first time.

One recent evening, eight Pomona students gathered around a table to talk about how “connected” they were to their parents. They were in touch through email or text or Skype -- technologies that some parents learned through their kids. Several said keeping in touch made the transition to college easier.

Freshman Tim Kung, from San Diego, said his parents “were actually very considerate” about his desire to “unfriend” them from Facebook. Talking less frequently makes their conversations more meaningful, he said.

It’s tough for parents to avoid the temptation to step in when they learn from a Facebook post, as Edward Chuchla, whose daughter graduated in May from Pomona, put it in a telephone interview, “about how stressful it was writing version 927 of a politics thesis.”

Sometimes, he said, he takes the bait.

“If they post something provocative, we pick up the phone,” he said. “We just call back to tell them we love them, and we’re here if they need us.”

Jamie Garcia, a freshman from Rosemead, said she’s friends with her mother on Facebook, but added, “I’m not worried because she doesn’t know how it works. She has like five friends.”

Her mother, Susan, however, is adept at texting. “I get a text from my mom every night, saying good night. So I text her back good night, like I’m alive, I made it through the day,” Jamie said.

Susan Garcia said later she’s reassured by the idea that she can reach her daughter easily. Even though Jamie only moved 35 miles and her family comes to her softball games, they don’t spend much time together, Susan Garcia said.

Katie Bent, a sophomore, calls home to Seattle weekly.

“For me, I would love to be in contact with my parents very frequently, but I also feel like this is the time I’m supposed to be learning how to function without them,” she said. “So last semester I completely destroyed my glasses at one point. That probably would have been a perfect time to deal with it, to find an optometrist in the area. What I did was call my mom, and said, ‘Oh my God, Mom. What am I going to do?”

Mom found an optometrist.

Katie’s father, Sam Bent, said that while he and his wife are much more in touch with Katie than he was with his own parents when he left home, he thinks it’s important that they not talk too often.

“I know I don’t call Katie unless I think it’s important. She’s in college, she’s really busy. I don’t call her up just to tell her a joke,” he said by phone. “In some sense I’m glad she’s not calling every day. She’s learning to solve her own problems.”

Caitlyn Hynes, the youngest of three children, has a lot of contact with her family in Upland — not only by phone or text, but in person. Her father takes her to baseball lessons because she doesn’t have a car.

Caitlyn said her mother might call to say, “You should go to bed soon,” which prompts Caitlyn to ask herself, “When am I actually going to be able to make these decisions for myself? I don’t have two separate worlds, home and school. It’s kind of like being in high school again. It’s not like I don’t want to hear from her, but more like needing a sense of independence.”

Edward Chuchla wants to talk to his children, to feel close to them, to give counsel when asked. He and his wife also have tried to take the advice they got from the dean when they dropped off their daughter, Grace, at Pomona College four years ago: Back off; avoid being helicopter parents.

“We’re very careful to make sure communication happens on their terms,” said Chuchla, whose son, Ben, is finishing his sophomore year at Dartmouth.

Once, he said, he went too far. When his daughter left Pomona for a semester at Oxford, she had trouble getting permission to check books out of the library. The problem wasn’t getting solved, so Chuchla emailed the foreign study office himself. When he heard from Grace, the message was, “I’ll kill you if you do that again.”

Both generations are finding their way through the transition to adulthood as technological advances present even more new ways to connect.

“We’re all in this together,” MIT’s Turkle said. “We’re all a little disoriented by these new possibilities together.”