November 1, 2010
I confess that my wife and I are a pair of those “Helicopter Parents” everyone makes fun of. So after years spent hovering over our son as he prepared for college – helping with his homework, quizzing him on tests and SAT prep, writing his college essays, filling out his applications, etc., he’s finally off to the college of our choice and we’re so proud. But it was a bittersweet triumph because after we unpacked his dorm room, approved his roommates, gave instructions to the resident advisor about his curfew and lactose intolerance, we had no choice but to come home. Now it’s just me and my wife and I’m feeling a little lost – like my purpose for existing has disappeared. Can you help?
in Downward spin
Let’s see if we can cheer you up. First, about the idea that your teenager’s absence has left your life bereft of purpose and meaning – let’s challenge that assumption.
What, exactly, did this purposeful life with your child consist of? Not allowed to hearken back to the days when your toddler peered out mistrustfully at the rest of the world from between your calves. Fast forward past applauding performances at school plays, lunches with touching little notes tucked inside sandwich wrappers, helping with homework, etc. to modern day. Focus on your recent interactions with your son. Despite your eager hovering, ask yourself how often did he start a conversation with a question along these lines: “Dad, what was it like for you growing up? I mean, how did you handle the combined pressures of school and social life? Maybe I could gain some valuable insights from your experiences.”
OK, now that we’ve gotten that straightened out, you may be prepared to acknowledge that ever since seventh grade all of your guidance and good advice, and everything else you offered up, was summarily scorned unless it happened to be firmly attached to a wad of cash or a set of car keys. So was it the occasional grunt or nod coming from the general direction of your sullen spawn that gave your life purpose and meaning over the last five years? Really? Well, in that case the good news is that nothing’s changed - for some time since, your life already lacked any significant purpose. So welcome to the sequel – Your Purposeless Life Part II. Feels a lot like the first movie, doesn’t it?
Still, there’s no reason to be defeatist. You just need to understand how to operate your helicopter in this new terrain. But let me warn you against seeking guidance in self-help books like: I’ll Miss You Too – An Off-to-College Guide for Parents and Students; Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money or the classic, Letting Go, now in its fifth edition. The titles tell you everything you need to know. These books are all designed to ease parents through the separation process and encourage their children to become self-sufficient young adults. Are you getting this? A successful transition to young adulthood, the creation of a self separate and apart from ones family, healthy transitions to independence – these are all code for: “We don’t need you anymore.”
The disconcerting thing about the strategies you’ll find in books like this is that if you follow their advice you will succeed in raising offspring who will be strong and independent enough to spread their wings and fly away, leaving you – you guessed it- back at the nest. But contrary to popular belief, it’s often not an empty nest; it’s one you’re likely to share with a strange middle-aged bird who is, as applicable, either balding or menopausal, (or possibly both) and in any event, grouchy. Thriving independence may be well and good for our kids, but what about us, the ones left behind? Not much of a payback for all those years of dedication, sacrifice and, of course, hovering.
Which is why it is imperative to plant the seeds of self-doubt early enough so that by the time your child is college-age, he will be paralyzed by the thought of making an important decision without you. And if you did not have the foresight to plant those seeds years ago there are still many things you can do to keep your little bird tethered to the nest, i.e., to “clip his wings” even after he’s flown the coop.
Here’s just a few:
1. Don’t cut the cord. Remember the cell phone may be cordless but that refers to the electrical cord, not the umbilical cord. Use it to stay in constant touch with your student. (Texts work best.)
2. Internet chatting. Insist on skyping (or the equivalent) daily. That way you can take careful note of your child in his new surroundings and ask him penetrating questions about that unidentified girl that makes a quick exit every time you dial him up.
3. Golden handcuffs. These have worked well in the corporate world and will serve to keep your child dependent on you for years to come. Deposits into his personal account should be made weekly, or even daily, conditioned upon regular communication or any other item on your agenda at the moment.
4. Joint decision-making. All major decisions affecting your student should be made jointly, by which I mean by you and your wife. Of course, if you really feel the need, you should consult with your son, but decisions like which classes to take, what area to major in, who to date, and which fraternity to join are just too critical to leave to the partly formed, beer-marinated brain of an eighteen year old.
5. Get to know the teachers. It’s the only way to be sure you can undermine their relationship with your student. Keep in mind you want your child to believe his parents are the only adults he can trust.
6. Find a local landing pad for the helicopter. If you have the financial resources, rent or buy an apartment in the area of the school so you can drop by unannounced. This will keep your son in a state of constant fear and anxiety and probably limit his ability to develop undesirable dependencies outside of the family (such as drugs, alcohol or friendships).
But even if these tactics fail, based on a recent survey of 1,200 college graduates conducted by Monster.com, 71% expect to be living with their parents for some time after graduation. Which means, odds are he’ll be back whatever you do but, then again, why take a chance. Besides, if you follow my program, Downward, it will feel like he never left.