Separation Anxiety

Like many Westporters, I read with both horror and fascination yesterday’s New York Times story on parental over-involvement.

Titled “Students, Welcome to College; Parents, Go Home,” it detailed the many ways in which moms and dads are unable to say goodbye after taking their freshmen sons and daughters to college.

The story described the mother who planned to “hang around for a while in Princeton for her son just in case.”  In case what?  In case he suddenly had a brain malfunction, and was no longer smart enough to figure his way around an Ivy League campus?

It told of a mother who — dreading separation since “the umbilical cord falls off” — read books about the stages of grief. 

And — just so regular Times-reading parents don’t feel bad — it ended with an anecdote about a father who made reservations at a B-and-B near campus, so he could take his daughter to breakfast after her first night at college.  The kicker:  He himself is vice president of student affairs at another school.

Preparation for college begins in high school.

The timing of the piece was not coincidental.  This is the time of year when hundreds of Westport parents take their children young adults to college.  They (the parents) are filled with far more anxiety, I bet, than their sons and daughters.

It’s an instructive story too for parents of Staples students.  I am fully aware that with no kids of my own, I can’t understand the need to hang around “just in case.”  Or read books on grief.

But I do spend many hours each day with teenagers.  I do know that when my generation went off to college, our parents bolted as soon as they unpacked the last box of albums (music).  And the fact that we called once a week (Sundays, for some reason) did not mean our relationships were any less real.

My perspective is limited.  But this is my blog, so I’m going to share that perspective, through one piece of advice.  It’s applicable, I think, to students in a broad array of activities at Staples.

If your son or daughter forgets something, you don’t have to drop everything to deliver it. If it’s sports equipment, he’ll figure something out — like borrowing from a teammate.  Or he’ll sit out that day, and probably never forget it again.

If it’s homework, she’ll learn how to communicate with a teacher, person to person.  She’ll learn the art of compromise, or perhaps the lesson that actions have consequences.  And one late assignment will not mean the difference between admission to Princeton, and rejection.  Trust me on this.

Sports is a great area in which to learn life lessons.  So are Staples Players, music, Inklings, and of course the classroom.

I realize this is a sensitive topic.  Every time parents take charge of their child’s life — or try to ease the burden on their kids’ already stressful, fully scheduled lives — they have what sounds like a valid reason to do so.

But in the end, that doesn’t help their son or daughter grow, mature and develop.

Education takes many forms.  Despite its stellar faculty, Staples offers infinite opportunities for parents to be the best teachers their children ever had.

Let them figure things out for themselves.  You’ve already given them roots; now let them flap their wings.

If you do, when you drop them off at college — 1, 2, 3 or 4 years from now — you may still leave with tears in your eyes.

But hopefully without grief in your heart.

23 responses to “Separation Anxiety

  1. Outside Observer

    Good Points Dan. It would help if parents in Westport allowed their kids
    to ride on school buses instead of driving them. Our school buses are empty
    while North Ave continue to be a parking lot. Why not require a sticker for
    those parents that plan to drive their kids. It will help pick up the expense of
    the police guards. Better yet maybe these kids will learn to get around without their parents. We band plastic bags but hundreds of parents drive their large SUVs to school and back. Many of them live within a few blocks.
    Questions: do kids do chores or errands in this town? We need to let the
    children in this townto be more responsible for themselves. Thanks Dan for a good articile.

  2. Spot on Dan Woog. As a parent of 2 men- one in college and one going to be a senior at Staples this year, I think you and the NYTimes have identified the too close parental involvement syndrome. While I love my boys – I do not believe I should jump, stop everything, when they forget something. I think cause and effect is a great teacher. This is learning opportunity – if parents can hear it.
    THank you Dr.Woog. – Gene

  3. You have no idea how much grief we are getting from our friends because we are putting our daughter on a plane to San Diego this weekend, and we don’t plan to visit until November! “You’re not driving/flying out with her?” Umm, no. If she wasn’t ready to go, then she shouldn’t be going. A common response: “Well I could never do that.” Yes, but it’s not about you, it’s about your child who has become a young adult.
    Colleges provide the most overwhelming blanket of welcoming during that first week that parents are most definitely in the way. A month later, many freshmen could use a little home cooking.
    PS: Woog, you don’t have to sire them to have a parental influence, which you already know.

  4. Richard Lawrence Stein

    I have been wondering what that whirring noise has been for the last few years…. Glad to know it wasn’t me and the loud music I have listened to for years but the Helicopter Parents hovering over their children… What even makes this worse was the other article in the NYT about how many schools have enlisted what comes down to matching websites so kids can be matched versus the crap shoot of learning about life. This way it truly retards growth and development.

  5. Parental over involment begins long before the students head off to college. It is part of the “my child is special” syndrome. Every child is special and they are made of sterner stuff than most parents realize. I have sent two through boarding school, college, and graduate school, and have one more to go. At some point, when they get on the school bus, they don’t look back.

  6. Really great points! Your parents can’t learn for you, you have to do the learning yourself. Mistakes, though terrible at the time, end up being your best teacher. I know, I made many in college.

    I am from San Diego and went to school at Trinity College. I just graduated in May and am now back home. My parents never dropped me off, they just said their goodbyes at the airport and my family on the East Coast moved me in. Funny, though, because my mother cried every time we talked on the phone for the entire first semester of college. It was heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time.

    In many respects, I am interested in being a college coach. What is your perspective on this? I am very aware that I cannot teach these juniors or seniors everything about college, they have to figure it out on their own. But if I were to help them create goals, plans, and if they ask me questions – I can give them advise such as: “It’s okay if you make mistakes, that’s how you learn.”

    • The best advice I can give is to follow your instincts. Model the behavior you want. Actions speak louder than words. Give them the opportunity to make mistakes; tell them you’re less interested in the mistakes than in how they react to them. (We tell our players not to look at the bench if they take a shot that gets blocked, or miss a tackle — it’s much more productive to follow the rebound, or track back on defense to win the ball back.) Don’t over-coach; let them figure things out for themselves, individually and collectively.

      And let them enjoy what they’re doing. If they’re enjoying themselves — and each other — you’re well on your way to being a successful coach. — Dan Woog

      • The Dude Abides

        Dan, you are equating parenting with coaching soccer. One is one on one and the other is a team approach which is far different in mindset and discipline.

        • I was replying only to a question from Hanako Justice about being a college coach — check out her third paragraph.

  7. The Dude Abides

    With no offense intended, unless you have children, you really don’t know what it entails. There is no bible on parenting. My daughter was Ms. Popularity until she went off to college and got a lousy roommate and wanted to study vice get drunk. In my day, we wouldn’t have shared any unhappiness with our parents but she did. And despite my disciplinarian
    rhethoric, I was up there often to aid any assistance I could. You honestly wonder that if you take the hard line (tough love) that you may get the call that they have committed suicide. So I don’t judge. Everything worked out with my daughter and she is in law school and happily married. I am not sure that would have happened if her mother and I had not been “hovering” on her needs. My only advice is to know your child well and open up all communications. But Jeffxs is right, that occurs well before they head off to college. And by the way, 25% don’t make it through the first year of college and after ranking first in the world, we rank 12th among students who begin university and actually finish. So whatever we are doing, ain’t working.

  8. Dan is right on the button – children or not.

    Let the kids breathe!! Mine have and are strong independent
    adults who make well thought-out choices and decisions.
    How do you learn to stand on your own two feet if someone
    is always holding you up>>

  9. The Dude Abides

    I agree on the fact that children of this generation are overstructured. God forbid, a child would want to just read a book instead of soccer, piano lessons and swim rats on Saturday morning. But we have created such an environment and encourage activity to strive for our own high expectations. Many of such expectations of A-type Westport satisfy those of over-achievers. I worry about those who are not of such nature.

    • I find the expectations of the typical Westport parent to be amusing and naive. I coached little league and Babe Ruth baseball for 7 years. Almost no parent had an objective reading of their child’s abilities. In all of the years I coached and had a son playing basesball in Westport, I saw very very few players capable of playing at top division one schools, but the parents of most of the players showed no realization of how unreasonable their expectations were. The unrealistic expectations are not confined to basesball or athletics, as any parent of a Westport student should know.

  10. The Dude Abides

    Jeffxs: Amen to your revealing experience. Unfortunately for the kids, such reality is not fostered upon them until high school and they take the SAT’s. Then Daddy’s Dartmouth and Mommy’s Penn are often out and they have lived 17 years of their life hearing about that. It is sad really. Lotta love and no expectations was/is my slogan.

  11. Sensible One

    Jeffxs does have his point with regard to athletics….. however, with regard to academics, I recall when my oldest was in her Freshman year at Staples, she was told ad nauseum what she needed to do to get into her College of “choice”. On Back to School Night, the parents were basically “terrified” as to what was demanded of their children and all of the expectations the school had – and how we as parents, had to make it all happen in terms of setting limits, making time for relaxation, family time, AND prepare them for the myriad of tests that were inevitable! And, we were expected to keep in touch with teachers to ensure that all was going well, to say nothing of all of those College applications!
    To be honest, our children had some wonderful teachers in the Westport school system, and some, not so much……. The bottom line is that there seem to be many critics of this job of ” parenthood ” that really has no description. Many have children that are challenged in ways that I have not experienced with my own children – but that does not make their reality untrue.
    This world we live in today is unlike what many of the parents in Westport experienced as children. When I was a kid, I was told to go out have fun and find somebody to play with! Today, I doubt there is a parent anywhere (except on their own farm or plantation) who would willingly send their children out anywhere without someone around to supervise. There are too many people these days who would do harm to our children and lest anyone forget – Paul Held, who is in prison now and who was employed by the school system for YEARS before being convicted!
    Which brings us to the NYTimes article of hovering parents – for the most part, College is a wonderful experience and our children learn much, but, it seems to be the rule nowadays that we feel we must keep in contact to make sure our kids are okay as opposed to other years. There are far more suicides and alcohol related incidents than there used to be. And that is the saddest thing of all.

    • While the College admission process is apt to produce pressures, those pressures are exacerbated by an inability to distinguish fact from fiction. I have visited dozens of colleges with my two older children, and I am amazed at the nonsense the more “selective” colleges hold out as fact. Both of my children went to Colleges that are routinely ranked at the very top of the Newsweek ranking system. We were told that admission to these institutions was virtually impossible. Fortunately, neither of my children bought into the selectivity myth, and neither did I. If you listen closely, the numbers don’t add up.

  12. Memories of Letting Go

    Ah, the best and truest line I’ve read in a long time from “Laz” above: “PS: Woog, you don’t have to sire them to have a parental influence, which you already know.” Thanks, Dan, for influencing so many Staples kids in a positive way.

  13. Ghost Town Guru

    I’m with The Dude Abides on this one: ” Lotta love and no expectations was/is my slogan.” Well said.
    Points to Consider: If you’re stuffing your kids with a lots of activities, she ain’t gonna be best at many of them. There will always be one kid that does an activity (for many hours) exceptionally well. You will lose out to her, sorry. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
    Ponits to Consider 2: Parenting ain’t easy, and there are a lot of “successful” people who despise their parents.
    Points to Consider 3: Forget the “Just Being” crap and start demonstrating the “Being a Decent Human Being” school of thought.
    Great article and great writing, Dan.

  14. The Dude Abides

    Sensible One: I think you are being oversensitive on the crime issue. Wesport is as safe as you can be (maybe that ain’t enough for some). But I think you are also blaming the school system for the pressurizied environment at Staples. I gotta tell you that the tax payers of this fair town have created this arena for the past fifty years that I have been around it. They glory in the number of Tier One schools and Merit Scholars they read about each year as products of their hard earned tax dollars. On a sidenote, however, I think high expectations of a teacher/school are far more productive to a child than those of parents.

  15. Like Dan, I have no children. And like Dan, my parents kissed me goodbye and never looked back when I headed off to college in August 1978. Unlike Dan, my parents never called me at school, not even on Sundays. There were no hard feelings and I never felt neglected.

    It’s easy to tsk tsk about the current college kids and say they will never be this or that because they weren’t raised like we were. But my guess is that our parents and grandparents said the same about us. The kids will always turn out OK for the most part. And, lucky for them, they have the benefit of parents who have been active in their lives.

  16. Sensible One

    I doubt you lived with Paul Held in the school system as I did with my small girls. I had to deal with him when my girls were in fifth grade and onwards. He never “did” anything that he could be arrested for….. but the fact that my daughters were made to feel that there was something “off” with him and the fact that they could not relax and always had to be on guard was too much for me. The Principal at the time, despite many complaints registered by many parents did nothing. It took YEARS to finally put him in jail. Thank goodness his preference was for brunettes and not blonds as my children were!
    My experience with Staples and college placement is obviously different than yours. I found the Counsellors to be woefully lacking in information and not really in tune with what was going on at the Universities. Our family had two different guidance counsellors and both of them were useless.

  17. The Dude Abides

    Sensible One: Sorry to ruffle any feathers. I am not familiar with the Paul Held case. Sounds dreadful. From second grade through Staples for myself to SMU and University of Texas for my children, I have no use for any of the counselors encountered. They have been misinformed, judgmental and downright wrong about just about everything. However, I still maintain that any school system is a reflection of the town. The taxpayers want their kids in college and the counselors are pressured to do exactly that. That is no excuse for their performance but a rationality for their intensity.

  18. Dude,
    Just google his name – add Westport, Ct. and you’ll get all the info.