If my son or daughter goes away to college, will I stop being a parent?

A Trinity University parent visits with professors

by Joe Knippenberg —

We parents worry about our kids in college. Are they getting enough sleep? Are they eating right? Are they engaging in risky behaviors? Are they studying hard enough to pass their difficult classes? And so on and so on and so on. We send them away, but we don’t stop being parents. My parents—now in their 80s (I’ve been out of the house for a long time)—haven’t stopped being parents.

When I was student back in the dark ages—er, I mean the ‘70s—I could pretty easily keep my parents at arm’s length. The occasional prohibitively expensive long distance phone call was about it. I always told them everything was fine and please send me some money. What happened in East Lansing (yes, I was, and am, a Spartan) stayed in East Lansing. To be sure, we had conversations about what I was going to do when I graduated, but they hadn’t gone to college themselves, they weren’t paying much for my education, and at that time college graduates were still for the most part rewarded relatively handsomely in the job market. When I told them I knew what I was doing—well, sort of—they trusted me.

My, how times have changed, as this very interesting article points out. Parents are in constant contact with their kids—texting, Facebooking, Facetiming, and, yes, making or receiving the occasional old-fashioned phone call. Many more parents are college graduates and have a much more vivid sense of what college is like. (Kids, take heed: we probably won’t believe you if you tell us you’re studying in the library on Friday night.) And, by golly, college has gotten pretty darn expensive!

One of the consequences of this is that parents are or at least can be much more intimately involved in their students’ live than was the case way back when. I see evidence of this all the time on the Trinity University Parents Facebook page, and in our own lives, with a son at Trinity and a freshman daughter at a small university in North Carolina. Our empty nest doesn’t feel quite so empty.

Trinity University classroom
Students shouldn't be pressured to make educational choices their parents want.
But pedagogically and developmentally there may be a downside. Presuming that we know a lot about what’s going on both on campus and in the real world, we may be tempted to interfere a bit more—maybe even a lot more—in the educational choices our students make. Wanting them to be happy, thinking that a good job (often defined in terms of salary and prestige) is the ticket to that happiness, and believing that we know what majors lead to those good jobs, we may be tempted to press our views very hard, not just when we’re sitting down to dinner over winter break, but all the time, in ways that are harder to ignore or deflect. Students may feel pressure to make the educational choices their parents want, not the ones they want.

What’s the problem, you might ask. We love our kids and want them to be happy, and we’re intimately acquainted with what it takes to succeed in the real world. Far be it from me to challenge the first two claims, but I would like to raise a few questions about the third, or at least about the connection between what our students are doing in college and what they’ll be doing after they graduate. Don’t you think, for example, that smart, motivated students who are asked by their professors to stretch intellectually and get out of their comfort zones will be prepared to face the learning challenges that are posed by every workplace? Do you really think that the narrow substantive skills they might learn in a class in 2016 will be the ones that they’ll be called on to use in 2026 or 2036? Are you confident that the job you want them to prepare for in their four years (well, we hope it’s only four years) at Trinity will be the job they have ten years after graduation?

I could go on at great length about this, but, for the sake of brevity, will encourage you only to read the aforementioned article.

Trinity University parents with LeeRoy tiger mascot
Trinity parents love posing with LeeRoy, the University's tiger mascot.
I’ll only add this: in my experience: students who are interested in what they’re studying work harder, do better academically, and, indeed, are happier. They’re motivated to find a way to turn what they love into their life’s work. Having learned how to learn (and loving it), they are precisely the kinds of flexible, entrepreneurial employees that many employers say that they’re looking for and having a hard time finding. So encourage your students to find a subject they love and devote themselves to it. Do ask them how they think they can continue to pursue this love after graduation. Encourage them to visit the folks in the Office of Career Services, to look for an internship or two, and maybe even to take a “practical” class or two so that at the entry level they aren’t befuddled by what they’re asked to do.

They’ll be happy. And if they’re happy, we’re happy, right?

About Joe

Joe Knippenberg is a professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, where he has taught since 1985. His son, Liam, is a junior at Trinity, majoring (shockingly) in political science, though he has absolutely no intention of following any further in his dad’s footsteps. Father and son chat frequently, mostly about politics. Recently dad has been working his personal network (friends and former students) to find people in the “real world” with whom Liam can speak about career opportunities. And Liam, with dad’s blessing, is applying for internships this summer. Joe’s wife Lee also teaches at Oglethorpe, in the Core Curriculum and the theatre program, and directs the drama ministry at Oak Grove U.M.C. Their daughter, Charlotte, is a freshman at Wingate University in North Carolina, where she is on the swim team and contemplating a psychology major. You can find some of Joe’s essays at www.libertylawsite.org, www.thefederalist.com, and www.thepublicdiscourse.com.

1 comment:

  1. As always, Joe is killing it as a Trinity parent! Thank you, sir for your wise words!