Park the Snow Plow: Parents Must Let Freshmen Grow

Over the years, each of us has seen many submissions from parents and guardians, especially first-year students. But recently, the volume and specificity of inquiries have increased exponentially, in part thanks to the creation of parent Facebook groups.

Many questions are important and appropriate. Who to contact in case of emergency? What health and counseling services are available? Who receives student grades? Who is notified – and when – if a student is disciplined? The answers to these questions are usually available on college and university websites or in emails and other communications sent to new students and parents.

But some parent Facebook posts point to growing concern among college and university faculty and staff. Many of you, it seems, seek to “solve” problems that your students can – and should – solve on their own as they learn to become more independent and self-reliant.

We understand that you want your students to get off to a good start and that social media and email offer an unprecedented opportunity to get answers quickly and connect with other parents; nevertheless, in a twist on Ronald Reagan’s iconic advice, we urge you to trust (your children) and, unless it’s urgent, refrain from checking.

Typical questions on parenting Facebook groups include clothes (everything from the best winter boots to party clothes), the number and location of washing machines and dryers in each residence, whether the machines are top-loading or front-loading, the best dryer settings, whether high effective detergent should be used, room dimensions and layout (including floor plans, diagrams and photos), bed height, sheet size, mattress toppers, dresser capacity, usefulness of bed risers and stacking bins, bike storage, carpet size, bed size window, lighting, cleaning supplies, acceptable wall hangings, the desirability of air purifiers, refrigerators, televisions, microwaves, printers, and fans and, by a student’s parent large in size, the height of the shower heads in The bathroom.

Other common questions include banking information, course registration, academic advisors and first meetings, medical services, orientation trips, where to eat, and where to get a car repaired.

Some of these questions are important for planning, some less so, but students can and – in the vast majority of cases – will find the answers themselves, even if they don’t as quickly or as well as you could. If students use the wrong dryer setting, they will learn that clothes can shrink, but also something much more important: how to overcome obstacles and learn from their mistakes.

Social science research suggests that Generation Z is less independent and more psychologically vulnerable than previous generations. According According to social psychologist Jean Twenge, today’s teenagers are less likely to “leave home without their parents”, go out with them, engage in sexual activity, hold a driver’s license, drink alcohol, to socialize with their peers in person, or to indulge in “the responsibilities and pleasures of adulthood” as teenagers were a few decades ago. Eighteen-year-olds, observes Twenge, “now act more like 15-year-olds.”

Too often, it seems, the helicopter parents of yore, constantly hovering nearby to keep their children safe, gave way to snowplow parents of today, determined to remove all obstacles in the way of their children. But as the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University observed, snowplow parents have it upside down: “The goal is to prepare the child for the road, instead of preparing the road for the child.”

Many of you are in constant contact with your students via text, FaceTime and email. That’s a good thing – up to a point, especially if you spend most of your time listening and encouraging. But if you’re taking on tasks your students have to deal with – whether it’s setting up their room, contacting a professor about a grade, or dealing with a conflict with a roommate – you risk jeopardizing their ability to function as independent adults.

Of course, you should serve as a sounding board and, if you suspect or know that a serious problem has arisen, you should not hesitate to contact the Student Services staff on campus. Well-trained professionals will investigate, with discretion, if necessary, and they will intervene, if necessary, and respond to you.

College is an opportunity for students to grow emotionally and academically. If you allow your children to make their own choices and live with the consequences, even if it means stumbling or falling, you could become the best teacher of all. And by doing so, you’ll be much more likely to form better, stronger, healthier relationships with the young adults you love so much.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Isaac Kramnick) of “Cornell: A History, 1940-2015.”

David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College.

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