"Beyond the creaturely comforts we provide our children, in those formative years we lay the moral and ethical groundwork for their futures as adults . . ."

I’d like to begin with a line from a poem: “to labor and not to seek reward.” The great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, adapts that line from a prayer first uttered by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order. Heaney uses the line in his poem “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” which tells the legend of an ancient Irish monk who once, in his narrow monastic cell, stretched his arm out the window only to have a blackbird land in his outstretched palm. The bird nested in the palm, laid her eggs, brooded them, hatched them, fed the newly hatched chicks, guarded them as they fledged, and watched, eventually, as they flew away. All the while the monk kept his arm straight out the window through weeks of Irish weather. As Heaney tells the story, he focuses on Kevin and wonders what he felt through the long stretches of the nesting, brooding, fledging, and eventual flight. According to one reading of that poem, what Heaney describes through the story of Kevin and the bird is the story of being a parent and raising a child. According to that reading of the poem, you have reached the point where the young bird has taken flight and you now have your palm, your hand, and your arm back to yourself. It is time to draw your arm back in the window and turn to the rest of your life.

Still, it is hard to give up the habit of holding your hand out that window and nurturing those fledglings. Now that your fledgling student is a Cornell undergraduate, what is your role? Ideally, you should lean back and watch it happen—watch your daughters and sons and grandsons and granddaughters and nieces and nephews grow through their undergraduate years into the astonishing adults you know they have it in them to become. The question concerning the role parents and families are meant to play in undergraduates’ lives is one of perennial interest and was there from the very beginnings of university-style education in the European Middle Ages. It is a question that has been the subject of a great deal of attention more recently in the press, in the academy, even, in fact, in the government (hence the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). The topic has developed into a kind of debate between sides we can fairly easily (and perhaps a bit unfairly—most of the writers on this topic are more nuanced than my Manichean dichotomy would suggest) identify as: “butt in” versus “butt out”—a parent should neither be seen nor heard is the essence of the butt out version; parents need to be involved, the butt in.

Most of the essays and books I’ve read concerning the roles of parents in their college-aged children’s lives focus on the children. But what about the parents and families? Once they’ve fledged and flown, our primary biological purpose is finished. One interesting thing to note: from the medieval beginnings of the university through the nineteenth   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.  century, the usual age at which sons left home for college was 14. Both the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, in the 1860s, set the lower age at 14. And, if you think about other adult roles, in medieval and Renaissance Europe, women were often married by the time they were 15. Think of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero and Miranda were exiled to the island when Miranda was 3. The play begins 12 years later. By the end of the play, Miranda is betrothed to Ferdinand; she is 15 years old and children aren’t far in her future. The gradual extension of dependent adolescence in Western culture, especially in the United States, is a topic of some interest to social scientists and biologists. But it is, or should be, of great interest to all of us. The central argument on the butt out side of the debate about parents’ roles in college-children’s lives is that the more involved the parent is, the less likely the child is going to be to step out on her or his own as an adult and be ready to shoulder adult responsibilities. We are, as the social scientists like to say, infantilizing our children the more we intrude on their lives.

Beyond the creaturely comforts we provide our children

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.