This is one of a series of posts on the meme of "Helicopter Parenting and the College-Bound Child: A Meaningful National Problem"
My previous post, GASP! Overinvolved Parents! National Emergency! NOT! looked at some evidence for parental under-involvement being the real problem. This post looks at some aspects in the change of our communication patterns as they pertain to students in college who don't live at home.
In her blogHer post, The Helicopters Circle Facebook and It Isn't Pretty, Marianne Richmond quotes a story from Duke magazine that reports on a survey from the College Parents of America (you can read my critique of the survey, which I find lacking in rigor, here [link to come later]) . Both the Duke article and Richmond's article report:
according to a survey by the College Parents of America, 74% of parents talked to their kids 2-3 times a week and one third talked to their kids once a day;
The Duke article and Richmond's post both misrepresent the survey results. I want to make five points here:
- The survey actually asked "how often you communicate" with your child while he or she is away at college, not how often you "talked".
- The survey did not distinguish among communication types. Emailing your child a recipe or forwarding some glurge; sending your child a text message announcing Cousin Mary's baby, or
that you just hit a hole-in-one, counts as "communication." The
survey did not subdivide one-way messages (such as the foregoing, which
might be described as "data bursts") from short, factual conversations
("'Hi, Mom! I'm taking United flight 123 home, it should arrive at
2:45, can you pick me up?" "Sure, Honey") from actual, two way
conversations with more conversational turns.
- The survey did not ask if the level of communication has changed since the child graduated from high school
- The survey didn't ask match college students with their parents, or compare the differences in how often they say they communicated
- The survey was not random and has questionable statistical reliability. In other words, we have no way of knowing from the survey if the parents surveyed are more likely to communicate with their children than the average parent of college students, or less likely.
The Duke story went on to conclude
Students chatting away on cell phones between classes are just as likely to be seeking course-selection advice from mom or relationship advice from dad as planning the evening's activities with friends.
The results of survey do not support that conclusion, on three counts.
- The survey did not compare students' total cell phone usage to the percentage devoted to actually talking to a parent. For example, I just looked at my daughter's cell phone records last month. We exchange calls or text messages at least once a day; Mom and Dad vs. friends/work/all others is running about 1:75 Now I know, N=1 ≠ data, but it is a starting point.
- Survey respondents could only choose qualitative answers ("Very Frequent advice" "Frequent advice" "Some advice" "Little advice" "No advice") rather that quantitative answers ("Every call" "Every other call" "Once a week" "Once a month" "never").
- Only the parents were surveyed. We have only the parents' claim as to what advice the students were seeking. In order to support the conclusion, you would have to survey both parents and students and match the claims.
Richmond went on:
90% used cell phones and 58% used email. From being buckled into car seats and bike helmets, to scheduled play dates, the Millenials have been constantly supervised and instead of feeling smothered, they apparently report that they feel very close to their parents.
Well, that's a non sequitur. I don't disagree with Richmond that some middle class white students have been micromanaged by their parents, and I don't disagree that a small subset of parents of college students have become increasingly invasive in the college setting. I disagree on two points here: the national importance of the Helicopter Parent phenomenon, and does frequency of communication necessarily mean over involvement?
Is the Helicopter Parent phenomenon of national importance? I don't think so, but a later post [link to be added later] will attempt to get a grasp on the number of parents who practice Helicopter Parenting.
Over the last thirty years, have there changes in communication patterns between parents and their children away at college? I think the answer is absolutely, but it's not clear to me that (a) this is a bad thing, or (b) that more information, in total, is being transmitted between the two parties now than in, say, 1977.
Up until the mid-1980s, both parties had to be available to a land-line telephone for a conversation to ensue. There were no answering machines.
The "takeoff" period for answering machine occurred after 1984, when AT&T split up and customers finally had complete freedom to buy their own telephone equipment. At that point, answering machines began to sell more than 1,000,000 units per year, and their technology became standardized. In the 1990s, telephone companies began offering "voice mail" services (which had been available since at least the 1970s at the offices of IBM and some other companies).
What I recall from my boarding school and college days (ca. 1966 to 1973): there were a few pay phones in a booth or other private space in each dorm. You went into the booth and either made a coin call or made a collect call, perhaps arranging for your parents to call back if you got them on the phone. In my case, I was expected to call my grandparents on Sunday night (clutching my roll of quarters) and my parents on Wednesday night, after dinner. The conversations were relatively brief (unless my Grammie was in a chatty mood, or Pops had a good story).
Conversations with my parents were....well, it depended where Mom was on the mental landscape that day.
But that wasn't the only "communication" with my family. For example, my father kept stamped, pre-addressed postcards on his desk, and would jot me (and many, many other people) a brief note two or three times a week. I suppose it was a sort of 1960s snail-mail text messaging. He loved to grow and eat sweet corn, and I particularly remember a card from the spring of 1969:
The first two sowings of corn are coming up strong. I can hardly wait for the first ear -- Daddio.
Was Dad's habit "micromanaging"? No, he just expanded a work habit (brief notes to friends, colleagues, and business prospects) to include his absent children. Dad's habit was not standard in the 1960s, but as email has become more of a de-facto standard of communication, I bet more people are doing the same thing now, as the barriers to communication have come down. Dad solved his barriers by having a secretary who went and got the postcards, put stamps on them, and pre-addressed his usual rota of recipients. Now I have an electronic secretary, who remembers my usual recipients' email addresses, and the cards and postage are all virtual.
Another anecdote. I was out of college and living on my own by the time my parents got their first answering machine, but I very clearly remember timing calls home to be when my parents would predictably be out. That way, I got a bonus point for calling, but didn't actually have to engage in conversation.
Then came the ubiquitous cell phone era, which I would date to post 9/11. Anecdote again: I flew out of New York the evening of Sept. 10th. At the time, my daughter's school was 30 minutes away by car, over routes that had been disrupted in the Loma Prieta quake of 1989. I bought my daughter, then twelve, a cell phone on September 12th.
The point is, before about 1984, there were significant barriers to rapid communication between parents and students away from home. You can't compare communication behaviors from the pre-answering machine era, or even the pre-cell-phone era, to now.
Are these changes in communication patterns an effect of Helicopter Parenting, a cause of Helicopter Parenting, or merely a correlation?
Certainly, parents who practice Helicopter Parenting behaviors use these communication tools to engage in the behaviors. But just because parents and children use the tools (even frequently) does not necessarily mean that the parent is a Helicopter Parent.