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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 29 · Number 2 · Winter 2012


Baby steps

Nurture is nature for parents, but independence is the ultimate goal for college students.

Snake parents have it so much easier than we do. Baby snakes emerge like miniature adults, ready to handle life by themselves. Mom and Dad are free to leave the brood in some rotting stump and slither away.

True, the emotional bond is not as strong in a species that has been known to eat its own young. But snake parents don't spend years obsessing over their offspring's developmental milestones: walking, talking, reading, texting. They don't fret over every potential land mine: driving, dating, drinking, Dance Dance Revolution. There are no bedtime stories, no parent-teacher conferences, no visits to prospective colleges. Snake parents never lie awake at night wondering whether their babies will be mature enough to handle the independence of college life. From the get-go, they expect their babies to catch and eat a healthy diet. They have no concerns about irresponsible credit card charges. Snake parents never have to get it through their offspring's tiny reptile brains that it is entirely possible to fail a pass/fail class, and that skipping the final exam is one surefire way to do so.

Human parents, on the other hand, produce utterly dependent offspring who require nearly two decades of care and training before they're able to live on their own — sort of — in a dorm with a cleaning service and a dining hall that offers three meals a day. Even then, our kid might call home twice in a single evening for instructions on how to mail a letter.

Will childhood ever end for this generation of college students? More importantly, will the leisure years ever begin for us parents?

Back in the good old days, kids went to work on farms and in factories before they were even out of short pants, while their parents stayed home and lazed around on the sofa, possibly in the advanced stages of consumption. Even as recently as a generation ago, our parents barely slowed the station wagon to a rolling stop when they dropped us off at college. If we had roommate problems, registration difficulties, landlord disputes or visits to student health, they didn't worry because we didn't tell them. They sent money. That was good enough.

Not anymore. Our college freshmen are only half-baked, and by the time they finish their degrees, an awful lot of them are still doughy.

Is this our fault? As a mature adult who's willing to take full responsibility for the consequences of our generation's exceptionally involved approach to parenting, I blame … nature. Nature gave us children who must be babied in order to survive. Sure, the ultimate goal is for them to become independent, but during the intervening years, somebody has to nurture. As a parent, our nurturing choices are:

A. Too much;

B. Not enough.

We won't necessarily know which choice we've made until the kids leave home. If our students go off to college and can't manage their studies and all that free time — we did too much. If our 18-year-old bypasses college for an opportunity to fence stolen property — oops! Not enough.

The chance for parents to fail at finding the right balance continues after children leave home. Here's the problem. "Although independence is valued as a goal, actual steps toward independence are likely to make parents nervous." I didn't write these words of wisdom — but I think they should be embroidered onto hankies and distributed to all parents as they exit the dorms on move-in day. The words are from the authors of Letting Go, a guidebook to help parents like me understand why parenting college students is trickier than it looks.

All those advice books about parenting college students — Letting Go, Buzz Off, Buck Up, Get a Life and Are You Still Here? — tell us not to mollycoddle our kids. As college students blunder their way toward adulthood, we're supposed to let them learn from experience. On the other hand, we're not allowed to disengage. Even if we secretly hoped to drop the kids off in a rotting stump and slink away, it would be irresponsible. Parents have to be alert to big problems, like stress, depression, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, serious injury or illness.

Experts say it takes five to 10 years for young people to separate from home and establish independent lives. And another decade to get their own cell phone plan. Parents should prepare to spend these years between a rock and a hard place. Here's the drill. Your college student calls to discuss a sensitive subject. "I want to move in with my boyfriend." "I'm flunking economics." "I'm going to take a gap year." "Our apartment has rats." You listen.

And that's it. That's the whole drill. Instinct drives us to protect our babies, and experience gives us a pretty good idea of what would be the best course of action. But unless we sense there's a bigger problem lurking behind the conversation, our role is limited to uncomfortable squirming. Restraint is a lot harder than it looks. If your mouth goes dry and your breathing is shallow and you're clutching around for a defibrillator, you're doing it right.

Parents who jump in to prevent a stumble mean well. Really, we do. But why do college students have legs, if not to take those first steps toward independence? Then to fall flat on their faces and learn to get back on their feet. Let's see baby snakes try that.


Humor writer Robin DeRieux can be reached at