Saturday, November 9, 2013

Snowplow parents

That is the term for parents who are so over-involved int he lives of their college student children that they want to clear the snow ahead of time so their kids won't slip and fall on it. Bella English has a terrific, and terrifying, story about the phenomenon in the Boston Globe today.

Some of the examples cited are hilarious, but none unbelievable. I am surprised how often I have to explain to students that the way to do something is just to go ahead and do it; there is no special form to fill out or rule to check, no permissions needed, before asking a question or seeking out an opportunity. We really do have some students (only a few, but they exist at Harvard) who seem never to have had to cope for themselves.

One of the most unfortunate developments is the phenomenon of students feeling so programmed to go to college that they don't realize they don't have to stay in college, when they really have no internally generated justification for being there. Harvard is very lenient about taking leave for a year or two or even longer, and coming back later without endangering one's financial aid or requiring any complicated readmission protocol. If you aren't making progress, if you are lost and aimless, just leave for awhile, I regularly advise. (It was not an option in my day, because men would get drafted, and I saw friends get very screwed up as a result--college became simultaneously a sanctuary and a prison.) If you can't think of anything you'd rather do than be in college, consider whether changing the direction of the flow of dollars might be a tie-breaker as to whether to stay or go. Heaven knows there are a lot of other people eager for your place, and you can always reclaim it later!

But sometimes students can't have an honest conversation with their parents about leaving, in fact don't even know how to begin the conversation. So they trudge joylessly on, following instructions. The fortunate ones wake up their senior year while they still have a few years to reclaim their lives.

I am glad I went to college before the days of cell phones and social media, and while there were still all-night bookstores. The day I landed at Harvard was the day I started to become an adult, and that is the way the world should work. Human childhood is so long, it needs something like going off to college to mark the ending.


  1. Stanford actually encourages its "shooting stars" and/or "bemused, and distracted" take leave, with the guarantee of the place being held for their return. .. Tiger Woods, the Google boys, etc... gone, but with a huge trace, and still "happily in touch" with "The Farm".

  2. I loved the way my alma mater dealt with parents during my orientation week. Monday morning, there was an event for parents at one end of campus, and an event for new students at the other end of campus. Half an hour into the parents event, they said "Any questions? Well, then I guess we're done. Sorry we don't have anyone available to give a tour. Oh, and no, you can't join your kids, they've really got an incredibly busy schedule the rest of the week. Have a safe trip home!!"

    My current employer? Not so much.

    1. You remind me of one of my favorite memories of Peter Gomes, which I tell here:

      Peter’s lesson at an opening-of-term service some fifteen years ago, remembered perfectly by one of those there to hear it the day after move-in, was the Hebrews’ moaning to Moses about the suffering he was causing. “And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Just as the Hebrews eventually thanked Moses, Peter preached to the freshmen, so too would they ultimately appreciate the privations Harvard would soon impose. Then addressing the parents, he added, “And so, get in your cars, and go.” They could return to pick up their offspring, he went on, four years later when Harvard had done its job.

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