Losing Trust: From staff support to helicopter parenting

This post was written for the Student Affairs Collective blog series #SAEvolve. You can check it (and all kinds of other great stuff) out here: The Student Affairs Collective

We knew the parental tide was coming. And now it’s here.

My career in higher education began in 1999 when I took my first job as a residence life coordinator (RLC) at a small, private college in the Mid-West. At 24 years old, I supervised a staff of 11, six buildings housing 300+ students and allocated the budgets for each one. The majority of that money came from students and their parents. At the time, I didn’t bat an eye at the level of responsibility I was given. No one else did either. I was given an extraordinary amount of autonomy and much was expected of me. Looking back on it now, I am struck by two things. One, I am stunned that this level of responsibility was entrusted to someone so young and inexperienced. And two, I cannot believe that students and their parents shelled out so much money to the institution and then walked away to let the staff do our jobs. That’s how it was then.

In my three years as a RLC, I had one conversation with a parent. It was opening day, my first year. A father gently pulled me aside and introduced himself. His daughter was living on the first floor of the building. She was blind and deaf in one ear. He wanted to explain to me that she had an aide. He introduced me to his daughter and her aide and explained what her role was. The aide had a key to the room, helped the student dress, navigate the dining hall, attended classes with her, etc. etc. He also asked me what my staff and I were going to do to meet her needs. I am sure I stumbled through my answer and feebly assured him that we would do our best to be helpful. I never heard from or saw him again until move-out day.

My second position in higher education was as an Assistant Director of Student Activities. At that institution the VPSA successfully lobbied for a quadruple increase in the student activity fee; my programming staff and I were given 50% of that to establish campus traditions and late night programming. The increased monies allowed us to improve the weekend campus culture.The only parent contact I had was in the form of thank you notes.

I have worked as an academic advisor for almost four years. I get to work with compassionate, smart, hard-working students who aspire to be nurses. For the most part, I enjoy my work. I get to help people. However, there are times when my work is challenging because I have to interact with parents. I have had more parent interaction in the last four years than in all of my previous years combined. In that time I have been:

  • verbally abused by an angry parent (to the point where he hung up on me and then called a week later to apologize);
  • participated in countless meetings with incoming students and their parents;
  • had parents go over my head questioning my decisions (and really it wasn’t my decision, it was someone else’s & I relayed the message).

I actually like talking to parents because on many levels I can relate. In just eight short years my oldest son will go off to college and I will be where they are. I know how much I love my sons and how hard it will be when they leave our nest. On a very basic level, I get it. Parents love their children and want what is best for them. What I don’t get is the short-sighted nature of some of these parents. By fixing things for their children, they have taught them that they cannot be trusted and they have taught their children that campus professionals also cannot be trusted. The disrespect with which parents have spoken to me (and my colleagues) is astounding to me. Their willingness to go right for the jugular- calling the Dean, President, or Board of Trustees, all of which happened this year in our College- has been perpetuated by our profession’s obsession with appearances, our need for tuition dollars, and our willingness to cater to consumer satisfaction.

When hope and fear collide, one of the first and best current student “trends” books, was published in 1998. Parent centers and parent programming started cropping up in the early 2000s. Big questions, worthy dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks was published in 2000 as was Howe and Strauss’ seminal piece on millennials, Millennials rising. Millennials go to college was published eight years ago. We knew this onslaught of helicopter parenting and over involved decision-making was coming.

I knew that I would have to deal with parents eventually. But I underestimated the coming storm and now I find myself wondering how I got here? I recognize that for the most part, it is only about 20% of the population that makes 80% of the work. But, wow! Some of those interactions are exhausting.

I fear this post will make me sound old or worse, jaded. I don’t see myself as either of those. I do feel myself getting frustrated though because I am unprepared to deal with parents, especially angry ones, and there is no sign of this current flood abating anytime soon. While I recognize that my experience doesn’t represent everyone’s, twitter conversations and venting sessions with colleagues tell me one thing:

I am not alone.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

The fiesty and outspoken owner of Marcy’s Diner is taking the internet by storm. Must have been a slow news week. Cause really, is this news?

It’s a classic case of she said/she said. Diner owner claims that a toddler screamed for an hour due to lack of pancakes and parental intervention. Mom to toddler claims it was only ten minutes and they were on their way out anyway. Cue the Mom on Mom and girl on girl shaming and proselytizing about parenting.

Not that anyone asked me, but here is what I think: two wrongs don’t make a right. Both the diner owner and the mother were wrong in this situation.

Diner Owner

  • Screaming at a child is never ok.
  • Screaming at a child that is not yours is doubly not ok.
  • You run a business. Act like a businesswoman, not an annoyed onlooker.
  • Smiles diffuse tension.
  • Problem solve instead of shaming.
  • Offer smaller pancakes on a smaller plate. “More juice or milk? Can I move you to a more secluded table where you will have more space for the little one?”
  • Your behavior dictates how your staff will act. Your staff now thinks it is ok to yell at customers.

Parents (because by all accounts there was a dad there, too. Huh. NO ONE is talking about him!)

  • Snacks. For god’s sake, snacks!
  • Sippy cups!
  • Even if your precious one was only crying for ten minutes, that is still a long time. Reverse the roles. Would you be tolerant of a screaming kid if you were out to breakfast? No, you wouldn’t. You say you would, but you’re lying.
  • Your child might be the center of your universe, but your child is not the center of the universe. Please teach her this before she comes to college and I have to advise her.
  • Age appropriate toys for kiddo to play with.
  • Books. Crayons.
  • Stand up and walk around restaurant. Point out pictures on the walls.
  • Go outside. Ok, you said it was raining. And? Last time I checked no toddler melted from rain.

Parenting is HARD. Taking your children out to eat is HARD, but it can be done. But both sides need to bend. This Marcy’s Diner bit is a case of ignorance on both sides.

Now I want pancakes. And bacon. And coffee.

Is it time to go home, yet?

When did we start thinking so little of our children and ourselves?

A few days ago, I stumbled across Mrs. Hall’s FYI letter to young girls. I don’t even remember where I saw it first. Facebook, maybe. I clicked on it. I read it. I re-read it. At first, truthfully, I thought it was a joke. Then I saw the comments on her blog and all the re-posts and re-tweets and realized she was in fact quite serious.

As the mother to two boys, I was….confused by her post. As a woman and a feminist (gasp!), I was enraged. I could not believe that this woman, who also parents a daughter, had these thoughts about young girls and their sexual identities (on-line or otherwise). That this mother believes that the best way to teach her young sons how to be men is to shame women for being sexual creatures. In the process, she is denying that her own children are also sexual beings and abdicates them from any responsibility for whatever decisions they have/will make. I really thought we were past the whole “women are temptresses out to snag a man” and “men are visual beings who cannot be trusted because they think with their penises” stuff.

I am very very new to the “blogging” world. But as I am writing and tweeting more, I am also finding more and more blogs, especially by other sassy mommas that I really enjoy and find quite hilarious. Several of those bloggers posted responses to Mrs. Hall. (Google it. There are too many to list here.) I read along and thought to myself, “right on!” I even wanted to post a snarky one myself with the same condescendingly self-righteous tone that Mrs. Hall invoked in her original post.

Something stopped me though and I am glad I waited. Because although I think Mrs. Hall is wrong in both her message and her tone, me being snarky back accomplishes very little, other than to make me feel better. And the truth is, I don’t feel better. I am sad. I am deeply disturbed by the message that her post sends to both boys and girls.

For days now I have been wondering why we think so little of our own children? Why do we think so little of ourselves and our abilities to raise them well? When did we stop raising our children to handle the tough stuff that life will teach them? The tough stuff that we are morally, socially, ethically obligated to teach and show them as their parents? Children come out of the womb innocent. They are pure. They are raised to be jerks or bigots or brats or alpha males. Behavior is learned. Maybe that is what is so scary to so many of us parents. We are so afraid of doing it wrong that instead, we do nothing and throw up our hands. Or, as Mrs. Hall did, blame the pretty girls for tempting her innocent, pure-of-heart-and-mind-boys.

What I read in her post is fear and mistrust. (My original comments about that are still posted on my facebook timeline.) She is afraid of the world that her children will enter. She does not trust herself. She does not trust her children to think for themselves, to remember the values that she has taught them. Clearly she thinks that boys cannot be trusted to their own devices and that pretty young girls are only out to corrupt them along the way. Why are we so afraid? And why do we trust our children so little?

In the process of formulating my own response to her post, I came across this post from Kristen Howerton. She blogs at http://www.rageagainstheminivan.com. Check it out. Really, really good stuff.

http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2013/09/on-respect-responsibility-and-mrs-halls.html

Her post really says it all and says it very well. “But when it comes to our sons we need to focus on teaching our boys to manage their own thoughts and to extend respect to every woman, regardless of how she is dressed.”

We need to trust ourselves as parents. We need to teach our children. And then, we need to trust that they have learned well.