by Susan Newman, Ph.D.
September marks the true test of a child’s march toward independence and a parent’s ability to let go. As college freshmen settle into dorm rooms and college life, parents feel sad, nervous, and protective simultaneously. Well, some parents…and surprisingly, men can be more affected by a child’s departure than women.
In the best of all worlds the move toward independence began much earlier, but many parents continue to orchestrate and manipulate their children’s education and social lives into adulthood. Parents of only children are considered the worst offenders of both control and feelings of loss when their singletons leave the nest. Most parents miss a child who has gone off to college, but the idea that depression sets in and a mother losses her sense of identity is as “old hat” for most mothers of one as it is for most mothers with several children.
In our digital age, the real risk is that parents remain in charge directing a student’s every move no matter where in the country he or she attends college. E-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones allow immediate contact-truly a double edged sword. For college-age children, the journey toward independence is being short-circuited when parents continue to micromanage their college lives. Older adults might recall being deposited at college with instructions to call home once a week followed by a quick reminder that “Thanksgiving is around the corner.” Today it’s extraordinarily easy for parents to interfere—a quick call here, a short e-mail there.
Patterns Set Early
I have friends who were horrified when I put my nine-year-old only child on an airplane to spend summer weeks at overnight camp. I wanted him to be with children his own age, to fend for himself, to learn to make his own decisions and cope without parental interference, without a parental buffer. I have friends who still make me feel as if I am not a very good mother when I haven’t talked to my now adult son in a week or two. I feel confident he’ll call me when he needs me or wants to chat.
We all know parents who hover and mastermind their offspring’s lives closely beginning with play dates, choices in sports and other extracurricular activities. Making most arrangements and decisions for young children leads to total dependence on parents. Throughout college, daily and lengthy phone calls seek parental advice on solving every little problem with a roommate, a teammate, or a professor. Mom or Dad calls often for an outcome report or to rehash the still sticky issue.
Sure, it’s great to call home from college for a recipe or to report a test or paper grade, but not to ask for help writing that paper. Conversations on how to navigate sexual dilemmas with a girlfriend or boyfriend are subjects more appropriate for discussion with a friend or sibling. In the end, when parents run interference for every single snag in their child’s life, mom and dad maintain control of their college student. Constant involvement is a very hard habit to break.
In response to an article on empty nest and a mother’s feeling back-to-school sadness, one son wrote, “If you didn’t feel what you’re describing, I would think you were a terrible mother. The problem isn’t the feeling per se, but the fact that so overwhelming many [parents] are unable to let go. As the son of a mother that doesn’t let go, I ask you all, please, let us go, we won’t be too far away. But, please, don’t place this weight on our shoulders.”
Empty Nest is Overrated — Especially for Women
When parents take charge of a child’s life from an early age, it is far more difficult to separate during the college years and beyond. The empty nest, initially manifest as a sense of loss for parents, can become excruciating for helicopter parents if and when a child decides to break loose. On the other hand, according to Karen L. Fingerman, professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University, parents who have given their offspring independence early on feel a sense of pride and joy when their children begin the campus or any away from home young adult experience. Fingerman, author of Mothers and Their Adult Children: Mixed Emotions, Enduring Bonds, says, “What I’ve seen in my research, what happens is actually the opposite of empty-nest syndrome.” Women feel closer to their grown children who have left home, they have better relationships when they don’t have to deal with the hassles of daily life living together. And women find time to renew their other relationships (including with their spouse) and personal activities.
Men are “less prepared for the emotional component of the transition [of a child leaving home],” reports Wheaton College professor of psychology Helen M. DeVries, whose findings agree with Fingerman’s. For women empty nest is not such a terrible thing, but rather they view it as an opportunity to move on. In her research DeVries found that men express regret for the things they didn’t do and opportunities they didn’t take to be with their children.
Seems it would best for parents and children alike, if mothers and fathers begin the pull back sooner, when a child takes that first step into a kindergarten classroom. Balanced involvement and guidance without designing and dictating on the parents’ part trains children to make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes. By the time college rolls around, mothers, fathers, and children will be less dependent on each other and ready to progress independently with respect, encouragement, and space to go in their own directions.