Charis Thompson stands up for the majority of students’ parents who are doing their best for their children, often under difficult circumstances.
A new US poll on parental involvement in adult children’s lives is getting a lot of attention . People are drawing links between the recent US college admissions scandal known as “Operation Varsity Blues” and what is being portrayed as a general trend toward a pathological over-involvement of parents in their adult children’s lives. At stake is an intensive kind of parenting known as “snowplow” or “lawnmower” parenting for its purported aim of removing all obstacles and failure from children’s lives. Parents who contact university staff on behalf of their adult children are being called out as symptomatic of this trend. If my experience is anything to go by, however, the parents who do this are getting an undeserved bad rap.
My own experiences as a university professor with students’ parents have ranged from utterly delightful to a huge relief and incredibly helpful to extremely moving to at the very least, understandable. In the utterly delightful column I would put those parents who occasionally come with their students to my lectures. I love having them, the students really enjoy the older person’s perspective, and their reasons for coming make my job seem more worthwhile. Sometimes, they did not themselves get a chance to go to university (some may even be considering it now their children have left home, which makes me want to shout for joy). Some tell me that there were no classes in things like gender, race, class and sexuality in their day. Some students bring their parents by to meet me in office hours and that is also delightful.
In the huge relief and incredibly helpful category I would put those parents who directly or indirectly through their children let me know that they are there when their students are in distress. Universities—getting in to them and paying for them and thriving at them while being offered no alternatives and being ranked for life on their basis— are a major reason for the surge in young adult distress. Add to that the illness and heartbreak that can afflict anyone at any time. By and large, however, the resources for working with students in distress come nowhere close to being adequate. I am not trained in most aspects of appropriate care, but care I do, and knowing that at least one person is involved and going to stay the course is sometimes what enables me to close my eyes at night. Not all parents can do this or would be the right person to do it, but when they can and are, they should be highly valued and supported.
Interactions I have had in the extremely moving camp include working with the parents of a young student who was tragically killed in an accident. The parents were setting up a prize for future students demonstrating excellence in the intellectual matters with which their son had been most concerned. I had the privilege of working with them on this extraordinary act of commemoration, love, grief, and generosity.
The final category, at the very least, understandable, includes a recent visit I had from the mother of one of my students. She was a first-generation immigrant of limited means, she told me. Her daughter was taking my class, despite being a science student, because she was very interested in the topic. The marks she was getting in my course were on the low side, however, which was not surprising given that she had not previously been exposed to much social science. The mother was worried that the marks for this class would bring down her overall performance and reduce her chances of getting scholarship money for postgraduate work. She told me that she was all in for the undergraduate fees and did not know where she would turn to help her daughter pay for postgraduate training if she could not get funding. I did not change her marks but I did understand where the mother was coming from; after all, I could not be 100% sure that she was not right.
In short, the vast majority of students’ parents with whom I have interacted since becoming a university faculty member almost a quarter century ago are more like oxcarts than snowplows or lawnmowers. In many cases, they are struggling in a woefully under-resourced and shamefully privatized way to help their student climb bureaucratic and economic and physical and mental health mountains. And they do all this while paying twice or thrice, as parents, as tax payers, as adult children, amounts for this education that for all but the super-rich are increasingly punitive.
What about the super-rich? I don’t get to meet them in their capacity as parents. Rather, I meet them as so-called “donors” or “philanthropists.” I will never forget the first time I sat in on a donor dinner at a very expensive New York restaurant, the kind where the donor has his own wine stored at the restaurant and a permanently reserved private room. I was a lowly PhD student and this was years before the terms helicopter or tiger or snowplow parents had been invented. Over the course of the dinner, the super-wealthy parents around the table discussed how to place their academically inclined children into tenure track assistant professorships at Ivy League colleges. They swapped contacts and strategies and names of heads of departments for upcoming jobs. The parents of my students with whom I occasionally interact have no discernible kinship with this kind of privilege. I’m grateful for the parents I meet. I am also pleased to note that today it would be very hard to use old or new money to buy a permanent staff position even if college admission can still be bought for the children of the truly rich.
Charis Thompson is Professor of Sociology at LSE.