Friday, 9 August 2013

Buzzy, the Helicopter Parent

As anyone who works in University administration will know, there are few phonecalls to make your heart sink like a stone than those which begin; 'I'm phoning to complain on behalf of my son/daughter ____ ____
It's an absolute disgrace that blah blah blah and I demand blah, blah, blah!'

I'm not saying these parents never have a valid complaint and I am always perfectly patient with and polite to them but I invariably have to point out firmly that their Josh or Jocasta will have to contact us directly as THEY are the student/contract holder and not their parents. 'But Josh/Jocasta is far too busy to report this. Have you seen how much coursework he/she has? He/she is on a hospital placement studying 24/7 to be a DOCTOR, I'll have you know!' (God help us, I'm thinking at this point. I hope I am never treated by a doctor incapable of picking up a telephone and reporting a problem or asking a question!)

'Nevertheless if it's important to him/her, I am sure we will hear from them. Please do encourage them to contact us.' Sometimes the crazier parents will ring every colleague in my office to try and elicit a different response, but bottom line; students are legally adults and should be more than capable of picking up the telephone, dashing off an email or visiting the office all by themselves (we even open late on Wednesdays to assist if they are too busy during the academic day). And even if they are not, we are legally obliged to treat them as adults who are, unless they have advised us they have special needs of some kind, in which case they will be offered the appropriate support.

I get particularly riled by the parent who jumps to the conclusion that we don't care or won't do anything about their progeny's problem, and seeks to escalate it to higher powers almost immediately, without even giving us the chance to investigate or liaise with their son/daughter if it sounds too serious a matter to wait for their call. As for 'updates', these are emailed to the contract holder and it is up to them if they share the information with their parent or not.

It has been noticeable over the course of my sixteen years of university administration how the parental trend has been to grow ever more over-protective of children, to the extent they are effectively refusing to let them grow up in some cases, when their role is surely to guide and equip them to fly the nest and lead successful fulfilling lives (I remember in the late 80s, me and my friends couldn't wait to leave home and start our young lives, even if we had no clue what we were going to do.) It is within living memory that students would attend open days on their OWN, rather than the event being turned into an Ascot of competing mothers' hats and outfits. And yet the most nightmare parent (and we've had a few 'office legends') often turns out to have the nicest, politest son or daughter, who looks deeply embarrassed when standing next to the parent ranting at the front desk as if wishing the floor would swallow all strapping 6'3" of their emasculated selves up, though perhaps it is understandable that a parent might feel more protective of the 18-21 year old who still looks about 12 and we get a few of those as well. Sometimes the student will even contact us to apologise for their parents' behaviour later on, so mortified have they been by being frogmarched to our office when they had no problem from their point of view or it wasn't that important. One mother recently saw fit to rant and rave that we had not made disabled provision for her son. It turned out that her son had not registered himself with us as having a disability and had chosen of his own accord, to live in a house with steep steps to the front door and four storeys high to be with his friends, despite his walking difficulties. Far from being grateful at my offer of a new handrail outside the front door as per his mother's demand for his enhanced health and safety, he was furious that his mother had told us about his disability. I apologised to him and said that I was aware that he had not registered with us as having a disability, but felt obliged to respond to his mother's insistence that he was living in an unsafe environment (we can never ignore potential health and safety issues when flagged up).

Some youngsters decide to switch mobile numbers or not take their parents' calls whilst at university as a response to 'smotherlove', though you get the odd father who is also stricken. Students going incommunicado particularly leads to frantic parental phonecalls, but thanks to the Data Protection Act, we literally cannot hand out new phone numbers or email addresses, nor can we tell parents what their son or daughter's exam results were or whether they turned up to whatever exam, though we are happy to pass a message onto the student that their parents wish them to get in touch, or have them checked on by Student Services if there seems to be a genuine concern over their physical or mental welfare.  Notwithstanding, over-involved 'helicopter' parents have actually been linked to the rise of anxiety and depression in youngsters that our Student Services department has observed in the last few years.

I've even heard of parents turning up at job interviews with their sons and daughters nowadays and then wondering why the would-be boss didn't seem to have any confidence in the youngster's ability to work 'on their own initiative' and offer them the job. Or who telephone ahead of the interview to interrogate the HR department or boss about the terms and conditions and where their precious darling would sit. A sure recipe for having their children tied to their apron strings and financially dependent on them until at least middle-age.

Could this be one of the reasons for the rise of the 'kidult', said to spend at least the first twenty years of their adult lives in the active avoidance of assuming responsbility for themselves and playing either commitment-phobe or co-dependent when it comes to relationships?

Why have parents suddenly become so paranoid and over-protective? Don't they have lives of their own anymore? What are they going to do if their children ever do manage to break free, leave home and become people in their own right?

The most darkly comic aspect of this over-weening attitude is that these same parents who have lavished so much attention and money (if not always time) on their offspring have seldom invested the same attention to detail in teaching their offspring  the Green Cross Code or how to cycle safely so that in a moment, all that investment and obsession could be entirely wasted. The dangers of alcohol and substance abuse might also be a useful topic to educate them in. Where is the over-protection then when it is actually needed? I say 'darkly comic' as it is always an absolute tragedy when a needless death happens in real life and I was emotionally shattered for weeks last time we lost a student to a moment of foolishness involving a bicycle, the nearside of a lorry at a junction and an ipod. It is only the irony that is comic. The reality is anything but. Not that there shouldn't be some inbuilt leeway to accommodate the folly of youth and furnish the opportunity to learn from mistakes  It's just that it helps for a youngster to know the rules before breaking them. Safer too.

Before any parents threaten to sue however, I wish to make it clear that this posting by no means applies to ALL parents. Happily a large number of sane and balanced parents continue to exist, even if they insist on accompanying their sons and daughters to Open Days, but are otherwise thankfully, hands off, respectful of their adult child's need to spread their wings and learn to fly for themselves.


Nota Bene said...

I was speaking with an old teacher of mine a while back and he said the main difference between when I was at school and now was parental interference. But I had no idea whatsoever that the same would happen at flabber has been gasted. And jobs too? OMFG. Really? I mean really??????? You have to let them grow up and learn from their own mistakes at some stage, and 65 is probably a little late...

The Poet Laura-eate said...

There speaks the voice of a sane and balanced parent. I bet your son even knows his Green Cross Code! ; - )