The Collegian
Friday, January 27, 2023

As parent-student relations solidify, colleges adapt accordingly

Editor's note: This is the final article in a series exploring the current relationship between parents and their students, and how it affects student and campus life.

They fill out housing forms. They set class schedules. They choose a major. They make requests for grades. They call the housing office requesting an extra long bed or permission to stay on campus during Thanksgiving Break. And no, they're not always students.

They're today's generation of hyper-involved parents.

But today's college students, who have grown up with dedicated parents, have formed noticeably stronger bonds with them than any previous generation of children has, according to a dozen on-campus administrators, faculty and staff.

"I'm seeing an increased level of parental involvement on all fronts," said Steve Bisese, vice president of student affairs.

"We're getting calls -- the first-year students especially -- which we didn't used to get," said Susan Breeden, the university registrar.

These parents and their students have effected change on nearly every campus nationwide, a phenomenon that administrators and faculty members said they started noticing three to five years ago.

Higher education development conferences are addressing these new relationships to prepare colleges for a new wave of student -- the Millennials, born after 1982 -- and their parents, the baby boomers. At the University of Richmond, Juliette Landphair and Joe Boehman, deans of Westhampton and Richmond colleges, have organized academic adviser sessions to explain how to work with parents and the generation of Millennials.

Elsewhere, offices dedicated strictly to parent relations are sprouting at more U.S. colleges during recent years in order handle the increased volume of parent queries. At Richmond, Boehman said ideas about forming such an office have been discussed, but no formal plans have been drafted.

University administrators have increased their communication and outreach to parents during first-year orientation and beyond, several university officials said.

"Instead of seeing parents as a nuisance, [Richmond] sees parents as part of a larger support system for students," said Leslie Stevenson, director of the Career Development Center, "Some places say, 'Parents, hands off.' But parents aren't going anywhere."

Bisese established an e-mail distribution list five years ago to notify parents of emergencies. He said more parents registered for the list last year than any other year, something he attributed to increased parent involvement, but also to the shootings at Virginia Tech.

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Three years ago, the university began producing a companion booklet to first-years' "Making the Most of Your Richmond Education," one specifically for parents. Just this year, parents of incoming Richmond College students received a handout titled "Transitions: Helping Your Son Thrive at the University of Richmond," which contained advice for parents.

"If there is an issue with a class, advisor, roommates, or otherwise, counsel your son to confront the issue on his own," the first tip on the handout reads. "Making calls to professors or administrators on your son's behalf does him a disservice in terms of skill-building.

"They must learn to solve their own problems rather than rely on you or others to solve problems for them."

This information "was absolutely a response to an increase in [parent] queries," said Landphair, who for the last four years has given a speech during orientation to parents and students about these issues. "It is important to set the tone [during orientation] that we know you love your children, and we want to acknowledge that [students] will also be missing you a lot, but please give them the space to grow and make their own decisions and develop into adulthood."

Landphair added that one of the university's main responsibilities is to develop students into problem solvers and solution-makers.

"If you've had your parents to do that for your whole life," Landphair said, "when you're really confronted for the first time with a dilemma and you don't know what to do, you're going to be a mess."

Research in student development theory, Landphair said, is showing that problem-solving skills in students have been delayed due to heavier parent involvement.

What exacerbates the problem further, psychologists say, is the rapid evolution of technology, such as the cell phone, which one recent article in "Psychology Today" called the "eternal umbilicus."

"Students encounter a problem and too quickly call mom and dad instead of asking themselves how they can solve it on their own," said Catherine Bagwell, associate professor of psychology who specializes in development for elementary and middle school children.

Bagwell gave to her students the "Psychology Today" article titled "Nation of Wimps." Some students, she said, argued that cell phones make students too dependent on others, while others argue it fosters more secure relationships.

She said parents today are involving children in more activities with structured and guided playtime. She said that although these aren't sweeping generalizations -- particularly for lower socioeconomic groups -- it's occurring enough that it has interested developmental psychologists. Faculty and staff also raise concerns when parents involve themselves in a problem that students could address themselves.

"In housing, anything that you would think a student would do for him or herself, like calling in a work order or sending me an e-mail to request to stay for Thanksgiving Break or requesting a long bed - the parent is doing that by calling from home," said Carolyn Bigler, assistant director of student housing.

Egregious examples of hyper-involvement, though rare, are the stuff of legend in some on-campus offices. Some call to request high lottery numbers for their students. For the first time this year, Bigler said, parents are scrutinizing Facebook profiles and calling the housing office to request roommate changes before the school year has started. Those requests were promptly denied, Bigler said.

"What is increasing each year, in addition to the involvement, is expectations," Bigler said. "The goal for many parents is to make life as perfect as they can for their students."

Some parents request grades or try to work out scheduling issues for their children, said Susan Breeden, the university's registrar.

"There are a lot of things we can't share or shouldn't share because we don't have the student's permission," Breeden said. "When we hear from parents, 'we're working on our schedule,' that's our favorite. I get frustrated when the student is not involved."

Last year the university founded an academic advising center. Scott Johnson, its director, said he recently received an e-mail from a senior's parent, who asked for information about applying to graduate school.

"It's a vision parents have about what their son or daughter is good at," Johnson said. "Mom or dad thinks you've always been a certain kind of way, and now that you're in college, you've become this kind of person and maybe you've changed in a way that they don't want. Or they don't want to let you go, which I think is the bigger issue."

Johnson said many students' parents are driving the choices for registration during their first semester, sometimes calling the academic advising office on multiple occasions with the student in the room.

"We'll ask to talk to the student," said Johnson, who has been advising since the mid-1980s. "In some cases they'll put the student on speaker phone. It's a multiple conversion: rather than saying , 'Call and get help,' the parent will do the calling and get the help. Parents have always called, but I think that this isn't just a media-hyped thing."

But the deans of Westhampton and Richmond colleges encourage parents to call their offices if they detect abnormal emotional behavior in a student over the phone because it may be a sign of depression or anxiety. "We are increasingly getting parents who let us know ahead of time," Landphair said.

"A lot of times the parents are the first sign that says, 'Okay, maybe there's something here that we need to follow up on," Boehman said. "So for me, that's a great benefit. I think it makes a lot of sense to say, 'how can we work together?'"

The origins of the phenomenon date years back and follows the children of Generation X, who were classified as latch-key kids, so-called because they arrive home from school without a parent around and need a key to get into the house, said Leslie Stevenson, director of the Career Development Center.

Starting in the 1980s and continuing through the 1990s, parents protected their children by rallying behind legislation that included, among others, gun control measures and Amber Laws, which alert the public about child abductions, said Joe Testani, associate director the Career Development Center.

"We're talking about a boomer generation that wants to protect its children from what they've gone through," Testani said.

But events such as last April's shootings at Virginia Tech reinforce parents' concerns about safety on campuses.

"You have all these different precursors that are just crying out for parents to be involved," Testani said. "I can understand it to an extent -- 'If I know more, if I become involved, bad things won't happen.' It's a societal movement to retain control.

Some employers, recognizing the closer relationship between parents and their students, are sending job offers and internship program guides to parents at students' requests, Testani said, emphasizing also that the number is small. KPMG, one of the world's four largest professional service companies and a perennial employer of recent Richmond graduates, is sending offer packages to students' families.

"[The companies] realize it's the student's decision, but he or she might want the family to have all of the information," Stevenson said.

In career development, parents ask questions about a range of topics, including what the center will do for their students. The Career Development Center offers links on their Web site specifically for parents, and just this year began publishing a parent guide booklet.

"I try to emphasize that I can only do so much," Testani said. "Sometimes I think there's an expectation that we'll do something or be a service provider. What we do at the center is advising and partnering as opposed to 'doing for.'"

Testani and Stevenson acknowledged that they recognized students who visit their offices and showed the effects of parental pressure. Stevenson said every week she and her staff advise students who want to major in one subject, but say their parents believe it's impractical. The "Transitions" hand-out for first-year Richmond College students addresses these parents, and reads: "The major that students choose does not dictate their career path."

Sometimes, career advisers coach students about how to speak to their parents and advise students to research what interest them so they can offer parents some possible career paths.

"If you enjoy what you're doing," Testani said, "you're going to do better at it, and you're going to come out here with a better education overall."

But parents counter that colleges have pushed too far the other way, an observation particularly relevant following the massacre at Virginia Tech, where the news media and others vituperated the shooter's parents for failing to inform university officials about his mental history. They also argued that ever since their students' enrollment in kindergarten, many school systems have heavily encouraged parent participation.

"They say, 'You've required us to be involved since kindergarten and now you don't want us involved at all,'" said Breeden, the registrar.

Lester Caudill, a mathematics professor at Richmond and the parent of a daughter in her junior year of high school, said that calling involved parents "helicopter parents" is derogatory. The prevailing viewpoint among professors and administrators, he said, is that they know the available university resources for students better than parents do.

But he argued that parents understand their students better than professors and others at the university ever will.

"It's fine to make all of these resources available and make it possible for them to handle," Caudill said. "But it's the parents that are ultimately responsible for what kind of adults their children will be. It's up to the parents to decide whether they're ready to solve all of their problems."

Caudill said he was not judging what was good parenting. As a parent, Caudill said he wants his daughter to grapple with problems herself, which ultimately gives her greater responsibility to prepare her for leaving home.

"She may not be ready to [handle every problem]," he said. "I can't tell right now. The things that she needs help on [in college], I'll help. And that may include calling the dean directly. I am the only one qualified to make that judgment for my daughter."

A child's development is often out of a parent's realm of control, too, Caudill said.

Both administrators and parents interviewed for this article charged that the term "helicopter parents" carries a negative connotation.

"The concern about well-being is something that has always been there, and we want to encourage that to continue," Bisese said. "I fear that the term 'helicopter parent' paints parents in a negative light and overpowers the good things that parents do when they become involved in a positive way." Testani was also careful to note that assuming every parent hovers is not fair.

"I think most parents will fall in the middle," he said. "They're concerned, they care about their kids and they want to help."

Bigler said: "[College] is a perfect time for students to walk into an office and not express themselves very well, but get experience doing that. That's how you learn -- being responsible for the little things in life."

Whatever a parent's level of involvement, people interviewed for this article agreed that parents should be involved, to some degree, with their students' lives.

"When a student arrives here, they may or may not be fully developed," Caudill said. "We hope they are, and that may or may not be the parent's fault. It's just important to remember that parents have a role to play even in the life of their college-age child."

"The parents are here," Boehman said. "We can either call them helicopter parents and be annoyed, or we can work with them. I would much rather work with people than demonize them"

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