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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 26 · Number 1 · Fall 2008


Goodbye to the Old-Fashioned Goodbye

Photo: West Hall

Student residents of West Hall — back in the day when parents didn’t have to meddle because housemothers did it for them.

Parents 100 years ago knew how to let go.

It hurts to say goodbye to your freshman. It feels worse than just about all the memorable milestones in parental pain, including childbirth, drum lessons and elementary school tap dance recitals. Which could explain why many baby boomer parents just flat out refuse to do it.

Oh, we go through the motions. We participate in the drama of move-in day at the residence halls, where everyone is sobbing with pride, sorrow and concern over the shortage of moving carts. We rearrange our kid’s dorm furniture, decide where to store 10 cases of bottled water and shoot a quick e-mail about course scheduling to the dean of incoming parents. Then we say a tearful goodbye.

But really, we just mean toodleloo, which we clarify by calling our kid on the cell before we even reach the university parking lot, that is, unless we’re planning to stay over in the dorm for the first few nights, just to make sure our child is adjusting well to leaving home.

Lemme tell ya, sonny, it wasn’t always this way. Back in the old days, parents knew how to cut the apron strings.

One hundred years ago, the parents who moved their kids into the residence halls at Davis had the same concerns that we do today. Is there indoor plumbing? Can freshmen park their horses on campus? Will majoring in buggy whips prepare my child for a fulfilling career? Sure, it hurt like the dickens for those pioneering parents to say goodbye to their freshmen, but they just bit real hard on a rag and hurried home to shell the peas. You wouldn’t catch them installing a webcam before they left. Like modern day parents, those old-timers hoped their college students would have an easy row to hoe. But they would never step into their child’s row and hoe it. (That generation also knew the difference between a “hoe” and a “row.”)

What a bunch of showoffs! It’s easy to forget that parents from 100 years ago were able to let go of their freshmen with quiet dignity because they expected colleges to supervise student conduct, and by golly, colleges did. In loco parentis they called it, which is Latin for “housemothers take no prisoners.” Those first farm boys who came to Davis couldn’t even fall off the hay wagon without permission. They had a curfew and mandatory study hours, and they got in trouble for things like filching watermelons after dark from the patch by the pump house.

Dorm policies eventually loosened up a bit for men and clamped down on the women who began enrolling on campus. Coeds were told when to study, what to wear, where they could go and how late they could stay out. They had to sign in and out of the residence halls, and anyone who missed curfew was locked out for the night. Women who repeatedly flaunted the rules were “campused,” which basically meant they were confined to campus during the day and to their room at night. No visitors, one five-minute phone call per evening. (Absolutely no text messaging, and forget about Facebook.) For decades, these strict residence hall rules reassured anxious parents that their college students were properly protected against moral turpitude.

The tradition of in loco parentis held together pretty well, at least until our generation arrived on campuses in the 1960s and 1970s and said, “Bring on the turpitude, dude!” Student activists protested the draft, the war and starchy dorm food. Baby boomers fought for free speech, civil rights, voting rights, reproductive rights and the right to build goofy student housing units shaped liked domes and named after a fictional character with furry feet. Our generation demanded that universities treat us like adults, not children, so that when our kids grew up and went away to college, we could treat them like children, not adults. At least I’m pretty sure that’s what I was marching for back then, but there was a big crowd, and I couldn’t read the signs from where I was standing.

When the smoke finally cleared, students had made it clear to colleges that “you are not the boss of me.” Dorms went coed. Curfews went out the window. Housemothers did too. Universities were required to protect student privacy, which meant that parents no longer had automatic access to their college kid’s grades, course enrollments, medical records or finances. At the time, this all seemed like a great idea.

Decades later, we have our doubts. Our uncertainty peaks on the day we take our echo boomers to college and leave them in the care of student resident advisers, otherwise known as sophomores. Parenting is tough. The prospect of not parenting is even tougher.

About a year before our oldest son left for college, I began preparing for the job of not parenting him with the purchase of a puppy. Not just any puppy. A cheerful yellow lab who needs at least two walks a day and will dismantle the sprinkler system if you try to shortchange her. She’s an affectionate dog with the capacity to absorb any level of maternal micromanaging I can deliver. Our son felt indignant that we were finally getting a family dog on the eve of his departure. He had been asking for one since his younger brothers were born, when he let us know that a puppy would’ve been a better choice.

Photo: Robin DeRieux and her dog, Bubbles.

Robin DeRieux and Bubbles: High maintenance pets help shield college students from overzealous parenting.

Our son’s preparations for college centered on picking a fight over his inalienable right to unemployment during the summer before his freshman year. Family discord is the meat-cleaver approach to separation, and many high school seniors swear by it. Some kids procrastinate and don’t start the battle until the day they leave home, but our son planned ahead. It was a thoughtful gesture.

Despite our preparations, saying goodbye to our freshman hurt like the dickens. By the time we finished carrying in all the boxes, the tiny dorm room was so crammed with hopes and dreams, regrets and anxieties, it was clear something had to go. Fortunately for our son, we realized that was us. I won’t say we left with quiet dignity, but we did hurry home to walk the dog. We have a kid in college now, and we can’t afford a new sprinkler system.

Robin DeRieux can be reached at