My 20-year-old daughter, Allison, who has her own apartment in Philadelphia, sent me a text the other day: "I need socks and dandruff shampoo." I laughed and texted back, "I need deodorant and coffee filters." I had a fleeting thought that she was actually asking me to pick up those items for her, but I preferred to think we were playing a cell phone game. I try not to be a helicopter parent. Experience as a mother and professor has taught me how badly that can backfire.
Instead, I prefer a more hands-off approach. From the time Allison turned 18 something kicked in, and I no longer had any desire to know her work schedule or pick up her tampons. I remember wondering if this was as instinctual as nursing her or bundling her up when she was a baby.
But that's not what I see at Drexel University, where I teach English and where my daughters go to school. The vast majority of my students talk to their parents three times a day or more. One student's mother called when she didn't hear from him for a few days. He was in the library and so he whispered "hello." She accused him of being hungover or drunk, even though it was about 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and insisted that he take a picture of himself, holding a newspaper with that day's date, and send it to her. I cannot shake how similar that is to a hostage situation—and almost as scary.
I've always treated my students as autonomous beings, telling them on the first day that I will not follow up with them on missed classes or assignments. It's my tough-love way of getting them to become independent thinkers, to do for themselves and take responsibility for their choices.
But I can't help contrasting that to the way their parents treat them. What I see is self-reliance being thwarted at every turn. I know a mother who watches the surveillance cams at her child's school for hours, hoping he will randomly walk by the camera. Another requests her kids' syllabuses, puts exam and project dates in her own calendar, and sends them reminders. One woman checks her son's debit card daily, then calls him and questions 3 a.m. pizza purchases. My daughters are on the same campus as I am, and so far, they've only come to me with stuff that's more important than a chem quiz or late-night pizza purchase, and I think that's because I give them space.
I wonder if the people so anxiously hovering, just trying to do their best, understand the twisty ways their kids hide from them. Many students tell me they have fake Facebook pages that they use only for their parents, saving the real ones for their friends. The decision whether to "friend" Mom or Dad is a never-ending source of antagonism.
Technology is also a crutch that allows kids to remain dependent and dodge the hard work of growing up. Students text requests for cash to their parents, who then go online to make the transfer. One boy conducted an entire text conversation while walking to the bar where he intended to spend the deposit. His mother texted back "done" when the transaction was complete, just as he opened the door.
Parents have a view into their kids' lives that was not possible in the past. That makes letting go virtually impossible, forgive the pun. I spoke with a mother recently who said if it weren't for Twitter, she wouldn't know if her college junior son was dead or alive. I'm not immune to this, either. The other night I was wondering about my own college freshman and willing myself not to text her. My phone buzzed and lo, Hayley had checked into a restaurant on Foursquare. Phew.
Trying to think of a metaphor for my ideal style of parenting, I decided I want to be one of those guys on the landing strips at the airport, with the flags. I am on the ground and my kids come see me when they need something; I direct them, but they are still operating the plane. That position, my air traffic controller cousin told me, is called ramp agent. Ramp agents do everything from guiding the plane into its gate, loading and unloading bags, and just about anything else needed to get the craft "turned around" and ready for its next flight. Perfect.
The code I have developed with my own daughter is this: If I haven't heard from her in a few days, or if I just have an ache for her, I will send her a text that says "Say 'hi.'" She will respond with those two letters and it is astounding, really, how much better I feel. I think we're all more afraid in 2012, and that technology can both relieve and feed those fears. The only reason we panic when we haven't heard from our child for three days is because we can, and often do, hear from him or her nearly constantly.
But we have to learn to respect boundaries, even when technology has erased the lines. This is the same moderation we want our kids to learn as they navigate the bumpy freedoms of adulthood. Just because you have access to all the alcohol you can drink doesn't mean you should. Just because you can shut off your alarm and roll over without any immediate ramifications doesn't mean you should.
I am going to do my best to stay a ramp agent and try not to helicopter, waving my flags on the tarmac—even if sometimes that waving gets frantic.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.
This article first appeared in Salon.com. An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission.