One thing that I maybe haven’t made clear is that this book isn’t intended to be an exhaustive treatment of this, or any, phenomenon — it’s a parenting book, designed to give advice to parents with kids heading off to college.
Some of my wishes for what might show up in these pages, therefore, should be read as unreasonable.
So, on to Chapter 3. Can College Kids Grow Up on an Electronic Tether?
This is the chapter that should be getting into where we might see connections between this research and the big body of student development research that exists out there. The authors point out at start that there has been very little research on this specific phenomenon, but there is certainly a lot that we “know” about how students have developed in the past – and I am sure that research informed the present study.
Research question: What happens to the independence of college students who are in constant contact with their parents?
Method: To get at this question, they designed the surveys to also capture information about:
- students’ psychological development
- parental involvement in students’ lives
- relationships between students and parents
The chapter starts by making with the argument that traditionally, students have been able to control the level of contact with parents, and parents have expected that the amount of contact they have with their offspring will go down. That separation from parents is essential for students to develop a mature relationship with their parents — if they stay too connected, then the dynamics that existed in high school won’t get a chance to change.
Most of this initial part is an exhortation for parents to let their students make their own decisions and their own mistakes. This is important not only for the students – who need to develop their own skills and to solve their own problems — but also for the parents. It is only when the student develops autonomy that they are capable of seeing their parents as people – with with lives that aren’t entirely defined by their children.
Nothing here is cited, but it seems to be heavily informed by Arthur Chickering’s seven vectors of college student development. Chickering’s revised third vector is called Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence, and deals with the same issues of connectedness – and how the relationship between student and parent can improve and mature better when there is some autonomy, or separation.
In fact, Chickering’s initial model focused a great deal more on autonomy as leading to independence — it was in a relatively recent revision that he refined this category to recognize the ways that the relationships that students bring with them to college continue — and the ways that these relationships change. Hence, interdependence.
(Which I’ve always liked – I like the idea that one of the things we do in college is become capable of bringing more to our relationships – that we can become a source of support to people who have always supported us.)
So – then we move into a summary of results. And the one-line summary?
…students who have the most frequent contact with their parents are less autonomous than other students.
Evidence? Those students are less likely to hit their benchmarks, according to the standard psychological tests that were embedded in the surveys.
Subtopics examined include: decision making, relationships, self-regulation and parental regulation
Decision Making — The focus in this section is on majors. Parents are pushing “practical” majors where they can see an immediate employment benefit. Students are asking about other majors, and hearing they should change. At Michigan, only 2 students reported parents steering them away from econ or business, as opposed to many stories where the reverse was true. Of course, all parents aren’t the same – some were described as “not heavy handed” with their advice, others felt they needed to offer perspectives and warnings, even as they encouraged their children to follow their interests.
Student/Parent Relationships — Relationships are generally strong, but the researchers did find that those students who get called the most are more likely to have relationships with their parents that are “fraught” & marked by conflict. Students who control the contact — who make the calls – report more positive feelings about their parents. There are also students who are controlling the contact, but who are maybe calling too much – which the researchers describe as “trading independence for closeness.”
Self-Regulation & Parental Regulation — Students with good self regulation (what we might call “time management” and “study skills” in other contexts) get better grades AND report positive feelings about relationships with parents. Students who reported high levels of parental regulation (parents taking responsibility for the timeliness and/or quality of the students’ work), on the other hand, reported negative outcomes. Not surprisingly, those who scored high on the “parental regulation” scale also reported high levels of contact with parents. They also reported MORE trouble with school. So parental regulation doesn’t just hurt relationships – but in terms of academic success, it doesn’t work.
Conclusions & Advice for Parents
Not surprisingly – the main conclusion of this chapter is that parents need to back off and let their kids grow up. This will have positive impacts not only on the students’ academic skills and success in college, but also leads to better parent/student relationships.
From the start of the chapter, there’s the suggestion that there are two types of students here — those who want more independence, but find that college doesn’t really change anything in terms of the reminders and suggestions and direction they get on a daily basis from parents
AND those who maintain those lines of contact themselves – who actively resist the separation that the research suggests is necessary.
Probably not surprisingly, because of the “this is a guide for parents” nature of the book, the advice is heavily directed towards the first situation. Parents, after all, can best control their own behavior and it makes sense that the book would focus on those situations where the parents’ behaviors are more problematic.
I was curious what advice they would have for parents who aren’t initiating the contact, but who have kids who are, as they say, sacrificing independence and development for contact. How can parents diagnose a situation where their student might be relying on them too much? What are the warning signs that your student is too dependent upon you? And then what do you do about it? I hope this is addressed more in later chapters.
And the other thing I found most striking from this chapter was the discussion of majors. That’s something that I think we need to worry about – exploration is an important part of college and intellectual exploration is one of the most important kinds of exploration students do. If that’s getting short-circuited, it needs to be addressed.