Terry Castle, in a fascinating essay called, provocatively, “The Case for Breaking Up With Your Parents,” argues that the practice of the intrusive parent begins at birth and only accelerates as the years pass. Hence, by the time the child is 17 or 18, late already in the adult formation process by world-historical standards, there are deeply ingrained habits of entanglement. And, of course, as we’ve all heard, we are now confronted with the bounce back generation: the children who move back into their parents’ homes after college and stay and stay . . .
So what to do? Here, I think, are the factors that make things difficult for us. First and foremost is the cost. College costs a great deal of money, and, by paying it, parents feel they have a right to be involved. Almost as problematic is the extreme ease of communication and travel. Even the great distances between some family homes and the campuses on which their children live resolve to a matter of airline flights. We all groan about air travel. But imagine how difficult it would have been to get from Los Angeles to Ithaca in 1868. Of course, all the electronic connections make anywhere seem like home, at least in terms of communication. It is almost too easy to be in touch. Cost is a factor in prompting parental over-involvement. Ease of access is a factor in prompting parental over-involvement. How to address those factors? Of course, everything about being a parent is costly. We don’t have children because we want to save money. And, generally, the belief is that we spend well on our children in order to give them advantages that make it more likely they will be successful as they transition into adult life. So, really, if over-involvement in their college lives is detrimental to their development, we are not spending our money wisely. That’s a big if, of course, and an if we’ll want to discuss.
That still leaves the problem of ease of access. It is a habit, an addiction really. Texting, Facebooking, Skyping—these all are electronic fixes, drugs. If Johnny sends every paper he writes home to have mom and dad tweak it; if every time Jill confronts a choice of what class to take, she texts dad or mom; if Bobby feels the TA or the assistant coach or the assistant dean disrespected him and dad should do something about it . . . where will the line be drawn? Were we really worse off when all we had was a pay phone in the lobby of the dorm and no way in the world to send our papers home to be tweaked, no way in the world to consult with our parents when we were enrolling in classes, no way in the world to complain instantly about things going badly in relationships, and so forth? Again, this is a question for debate.
Being a parent is among the most rewarding experiences a human being can have. It is also potentially the most heartbreaking and is certainly often the most frustrating. When our children are infants and toddlers and pre-schoolers and elementary school students and on up toward high school, our roles as parents are well defined and, in fact, necessary. Little ones can barely feed themselves, clothe themselves, clean themselves, and certainly cannot work out how to earn money for the food, the clothing, the cleaning products. Beyond the creaturely comforts we provide our children, in those formative years we lay the moral and ethical groundwork for their futures as adults; we endow them with habits of mind and behavior that will go a long way toward determining whether they will be successful adults (and I mean success in much more than simply financial success: I mean taking on the responsibilities we all shoulder in our lives as adults). But when they enter that liminal space, that shadow land at the edge of the large world of their adult lives, what are we supposed to do? That window continues to beckon.