Umbilical Cord Reattached?

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Shirley E. Arnold
Director of Academic Support Services
Brevard College

Many parents of today?s college students are Baby Boomers. So are many of us who work in higher education as faculty members and administrators. So it seems we should have a good point of entry into understanding our contemporaries? approach to parenting. Yet, instead, our expectations of our students seem dramatically different!

Students today often tell us that their best friends are their parents. While we may assume that the student with the cell phone glued to his/her ear is talking to a peer, we should probably think again. The conversation partner is very likely a parent. Why is this so surprising to us? Communication between students and parents has grown significantly as indicated in a Middlebury College poll taken in 2006.

As Baby Boomers, many of us were taught to be independent thinkers and to accept the consequences of our independent thinking, whether such thinking related to our choices about hair length, drug use, or political involvement. Consequently, we find it challenging to deal with students who seek constant guidance from their parents before making the slightest decision. Our challenge is compounded by the fact that when the students do think independently and make poor decisions, their parents do not seem to expect them to take responsibility for their choices. Rather, parents often find us as college administrators or faculty to be at fault instead.

Those of us working in academic affairs in small, private, liberal arts colleges walk a tight rope to meet the expectations of both students and parents in today?s world. The students, the so-called ?millennials,? continually challenge ways of teaching and discipline aimed at moving them toward young adulthood, toward making sound decisions and accepting consequences for their actions. How confusing it is for us, then, to talk with parents who blame us as individuals, or ?the college? in general, for their students? predicaments. When I hear such ready blame for anyone but a student him or herself, I feel as if the parent?s umbilical cord has been reattached. ?Umbilically-connected? parents are text messaging, emailing, leaving wake up calls, setting strict schedules, editing papers and heaven knows what else, seemingly intent on protecting their offspring from the consequences of their own actions.

If there is any comfort to be had in this scenario, it is that the College where I work is not the only institution experiencing this strange phenomenon. Rather, the umbilical cording of parents and students is happening in colleges and universities across the nation. The reattachment does not seem to be related to economic or educational background; it occurs in families with privilege and ones without. Why? Principally, because parents want the very best for their children and are willing to go to any lengths to procure it?even to the point of negotiating job details following graduation!

In response to this situation, those of us who work in administration may need to take on a new role: educating not only the millennial student, but the Baby Boomer parent as well. Karen Coburn agrees. She writes that ?Colleges and universities throughout the country are taking creative steps to enlist today?s involved parents in ways that promote?rather than thwart?student development and engaged learning.? Getting the parents onboard will be a key to getting students to emerge as successful young adults when college graduation arrives.

Another key is ensuring that college leaders are involved with this restructured educational process, including enrollment officers, campus life staff, academic affairs staff/faculty, current parents, and current student leaders. Involving all of these groups will allow for all views to be heard and examined. At the very least, a cross section of the campus needs to be enlisted to brainstorm ways to address the issues that are arising with today?s students and their parents. The ideas that emerge can then be put into a pamphlet to be shared with parents as part of orientation. I?m convinced we cannot assist the ?millennial? students with their education toward independent and mature thinking unless we find a way to have parental buy in.

Unfortunately, we cannot wave a magic wand to detach the umbilical cord when it has been there for over 18 years. I do believe as educators we are obligated to educate today?s parents as well as their students. The challenge in doing this will not be easy but the rewards will be amazing for everyone. I believe we owe it to our students, our parents, and ourselves.

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