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The Bond: Staying in touch when children go to college

New technologies are keeping kids tethered to their parents longer than previous generations. Yes, you can remain in constant contact through texts, status updates and instant messages ? but should you?

June 04, 2011|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times
  • Are parents and their college-age children in touch too much?
Are parents and their college-age children in touch too much? (Steve Sedam, For The Times )

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.

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