One of the questions that I’ve asked myself as the kids age and begin to move out into the world – whether camping trips or high school trips – is how much I should try to keep in contact with them. It was one thing when they were younger and going away and either my wife or I could expect the typical homesickness/touch-base call. But it came into focus when Eldest went off to college three years ago and it’s one that I’m asking again as Middle now prepares for college departure.
One of the knocks on my generation’s parenting is that we’re helicopter parents, constantly there to protect and smother the kids in our effort to make their lives safer and better. Yet that term can itself be confusing as Eldest’s college dean implied to parents at freshman orientation that parents who went to all of the kids’ events and games were such; after all, his parents – in the 1960s – only made one of his own high school games and my personal opinion is that he’s suffering a case of sour grapes. In a conversation two years ago, Youngest – then still in elementary school – commented that he viewed hovering parents as shelter parents who attempted to shelter their children from all possible mishaps. Youngest’s case-in-point then pertained to a baseball parent who yelled at a coach during a game; it’s an event that has happened since that time almost three years ago. To his credit, Youngest has made it clear that if he gets yelled at by a coach in my presence, it’s my job to shut up.
But the question remains: how should communication occur after they depart? My own experience in going to college was that, barring unexpected questions or situations, I should call my parents collect once a week on a predetermined night. As it was, there were plenty of unexpected situations my freshman year and the phone calls were a bit more frequent for the first semester at least. But the newer technology base makes communication easier and more ubiquitous. Many parents require that kids with a Facebook account “friend” them, at least for the account that the folks know about. Parents can thus see the latest photos of Junior dressed up with his date before the big party on the public account while Junior’s peers get to see the grisly after-party photos on Junior’s private account site. No, kids, we’re not stupid. The almost-universal presence of cellphones – or as I refer to them around the kids, texty-thingies – means that we parents have the capability to step in to help the kid with a problem on a moment’s notice. That presumes that (a) the kid wants our help and asks for it, and (b) that we have the willingness to help them should they ask. If I want my kids to be productive and moral adults, capable of standing on their own two feet, then I have to accept that both (a) and (b) have corollaries. The corollary to (a) would be that things might not turn out optimally because the kid chose to attempt management on her own without my input and if that’s the case, then my job is to monitor my own mouth and perhaps offer a quiet post-mortem at a later time. The corollary to (b) would be that there might come a time when I opt not to assist but instead stand back and let them deal with the issue themselves with whatever subsequent consequences might arise. It could be a highly valuable object lesson but one that’s painful for the immediate relationship and something that I’d have to decide was worth the pain.
Understand that the question will come at one point or another. Being a parent means that we have to gradually cede ground on autonomy and independence as the kids age and the true gift is to ascertain when and how much to cede; to say that it’s an imprecise process is an understatement. Take the time now to consider what your guidelines with the kids might be and understand that you and your mate might very well have different expectations on what those might be; my wife is in closer contact to the kids via text than I am while I might go for weeks between texts or phone calls. My own comments have been that I’ll be happy to speak with you whenever you so choose and will answer any questions that you might have…but don’t blindside me with bad news unless it’s truly unexpected. There will be miscommunications and there will be the occasional hard feelings but if you take some time to think about your expectations and go over them in advance, the potential damage can be minimized and you can move on to a newer, more well-defined adult relationship.