Weaning Parents From Children as They Head Off to College

September 15, 2004 | By Samuel G. Freedman

One momentous morning 35 Septembers ago, Abby Snay’s parents packed their Oldsmobile from trunk to dome light with her suitcases, her books, even her hair dryer, and drove from their Chicago home to her first day of college at Washington University in St. Louis. Once the elder Snays unloaded the car and lugged the stuff into Abby’s dorm room, they turned around and rode the five hours back, confident she would survive.

On a comparable day earlier this month, Ms. Snay and her husband sat on folding chairs in the gymnasium of Skidmore College here, having flown cross-country with their son to start his freshman year. From a temporary stage, the sounds of Donovan and Steely Dan wafted across the hardwood floor to the bleachers, aural comfort food for perhaps 500 middle-aged parents. When the serenade ended, an author named Karen Levin Coburn strode to the podium to begin a workshop on a topic on which Ms. Snay’s parents had not required instruction. It was called “Letting Go.”

Indeed, Ms. Snay, the director of a Jewish social service agency in San Francisco, and her husband, Ed Yelin, a professor of health policy at the University of California campus there, had overseen their son Ben’s applications to multiple colleges. Was it 12 or 13? They could not remember exactly anymore. And they, of course, would be paying the price of Skidmore, nearly $40,000 a year for tuition, room, board and fees.

“This is a whole generation of boomer parents who’ve been so involved with their kids from the beginning,” Ms. Snay said with appealing self-awareness and a trace of apology. “Baby groups, selecting the best preschool, piano lessons, soccer games. This is just the next step. And I think of us as being in the middle of the spectrum.”

She must be right, because in an era when parents increasingly orchestrate their children’s lives, and nowhere more so than in the process of applying to college, the business of orientation for grown-ups is flourishing.

Scores of institutions, from Utah State to Oberlin, from M.I.T. to Notre Dame to Wake Forest, offer some combination of practical information and virtual group therapy. At Wofford College, a Methodist school in Spartanburg, S.C., a minister cites biblical verses to reassure parents.

Ms. Coburn, an alumna of Skidmore who is an assistant vice chancellor of Washington University, started holding workshops 20 years ago, drawing perhaps 200 parents on her own campus. These days, Washington University devotes three days to parent orientation, and her session attracts a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 1,000. Top high schools like Francis Parker in San Diego, Stuyvesant in Manhattan and Ridgewood in New Jersey hire her to address parents of college-bound seniors. Her book, “Letting Go,” first published in 1988, has sold 300,00 copies in four editions and is growing in sales with each passing year.

The trend has remade even the language. College students are now known by the euphemism “emerging adults.” As for their mothers and fathers, the authors Neil Howe and William Strauss have dubbed them “helicopter parents” for their habit of hovering over their collegian children, ever ready to swoop in and meddle, er, rescue.

Of course, there are some perfectly logical reasons for the current generation of parents to enmesh themselves so deeply in the process.

College costs a huge amount of money. Admission to an elite university is viewed, albeit without proof, as the guarantee of a child’s success in later life. Issues ranging from date rape to attention deficit disorder have emerged on campuses in the last decade or so.

While the parents of baby boomers may not have attended college, or stayed close to home at places like City College in New York or Loyola University in Chicago, the boomers consider themselves experienced experts, knowledgeable consumers.

Still, one cannot escape the overarching sense that, for the parents who populate workshops like Ms. Coburn’s, youth is too important to be left to the young. And the young, having grown accustomed to dependency, harbor profoundly mixed feelings about being let go. Sixty or 70 years ago, teenagers worked full time to support their Depression-era families and enlisted to battle fascism in a world war; now the question is whether to pick up the cellphone when Mom or Dad show up on caller ID.

“There’s two really dominant sides within the same person,” said Rachael Caine, a Skidmore sophomore who performed in a skit that was part of Ms. Coburn’s session. “One is: ‘I really need you here. I need you to sign me up for my classes. I need you to put me to bed. I want to do this on my own, but, oh, my God, I can’t.’ Then there’s the other side. ‘I don’t want to talk to you. I’m finally living my own life and it’s fabulous. And even if it isn’t fabulous, I’ll work it out on my own.’ ”

Amid such a thicket of anxiety, Ms. Coburn presented herself to the Skidmore parents as a kindred spirit. She spoke about how differently her own two children reacted to the onset of college—her daughter shopping for her wardrobe months in advance, her son asking as the family drove to campus, “What’s the difference between archeology and anthropology?”

She recalled the freshman she spotted at Washington University who tore off the shirt his parents had commanded he wear for arrival day and set it afire.

“It can be hard to remember,” she told her audience, “just who it is who’s going to college.”

In fleecy tones, she set about weaning parent from child. She talked about the need to appreciate a child’s “four I’s:” independence, intimacy, identity and intellectual development. She suggested that the parents see themselves as coaches for their children, available to share advice and wisdom when asked but as much as possible pointing them toward support services on the campus rather than offering to solve every problem.

“We need to learn how to keep our own feelings separate,” Ms. Snay acknowledged. “Ben’s our youngest, and there are all these feelings of loss.”

Her husband added, “And for me, to learn how to keep away and learn how to let him fail on his own without jumping in to help him.”

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