Okay so here’s the thing. Saturday I found myself at work for a short while. My own fault — I was late on something so took an hour to come in and fix things up so I wouldn’t look like a complete loser on Monday morning. I saw thousands of parents with scared-looking, uncommunicative kids being almost dragged along behind them. It was the parents who looked around with the sense of wonder, curiosity, and eagerness that once upon a time would have been the preserve of the young people seeking the right school.
Here and elsewhere, I have seen the helicoptered generation become less and less likely to pose questions of student guides, helpful staff, or faculty stationed at strategic points around campus. I’ve been an arts intake advisor at York, a part-time faculty member at Laurier Day, the head advisor at Trent’s part-time college, and a consultant to many a family friend going through the increasingly pressure-cooker atmosphere of choosing the right university. And every year, I worry more about the ability of young people to function in a world in which their parents are doing all their legwork. I know that we’re supposed to see parents as “stakeholders” or as “partners” in their children’s education — heaven knows I’ve tried on those very roles throughout my own kid’s elementary and secondary schooling. But university is supposed to be a wing-spreading time — a time of self-discovery and inquiry unfettered by parental will. Yet some of these students even seem to value the hovering, calling it input from their most trusted advisors, mom and/or dad.
Let me go back a few years — to 1986-87. I’m 17, turning 18. I’ve applied to three institutions (that’s all we were allowed to apply to within Ontario!). My grades are as high as they need to be in order to mitigate the stress of being denied anywhere, but still I want to know I’m making the right decision (I become easily paralyzed by the idea that if I choose one thing, I’ll never be able to do the gazillion other things I didn’t choose). So, after spending a gap Winter term at the U of Guelph taking a couple of courses to see if I can handle university, I arrange campus visits at my three choices for full-time study. I’ve already pored over the materials I requested in the mail (right — no websites — it’s the ’80s) from the admissions offices and from departments I’m curious about. My parents ask to see it all, but I’m the one doing the reading and thinking.
I take off with one of my friends to Queen’s to visit an ex of hers who shows us around rez and around campus. I pick up info from the disciplines I think I might want to study, and I have lots of chances to take in the atmosphere as well as ask my questions. I go to the U of T because my dad went there, and although I don’t know anyone, I scope things out and gather information. I visit Trent, where I suspect my heart will be, and I’m not wrong. I spend the day with a professor who knows someone who knows my family, and he takes me all over campus, introduces me to people in residence, people in different Departments, and I ask all my questions.
The only time my mom comes along is for a scholarship interview. She sits right outside the door and I blow the whole thing. Not her fault, but really, I wanted to do this under my own steam and resented being coddled through it.
Fast forward to September. My parents and many other parents drive up to Champlain College, Trent University. They all drop their kids off with plenty of stuff, there are plenty of tears, then they leave pretty quickly and we get on with the magic of intro week.
I suppose I’m sounding like a curmudgeon now, for whom the past was ever so much better than the degenerate present. I am, though, deeply worried (as a teacher of first-years, as a parent, as a teaching developer) that parents are doing far too much of the thinking, discriminating, and choosing for their university-bound (and I mean bound in two senses) young adults. I’d welcome stories from the 50s, 60s and 70s, stories from more recently that contradict my concerns, and stories from 1987 that show I’m just a misremembering, romanticizing blowhard. What do you think?