Chapter 6 in Contested Issues in Student Affairs: Diverse Perspectives and Respectful Dialogue, What Should Universities Do About Overly Involved Parents? consists of two short articles: “Aiming to Redefine, not Restrict, Parental Involvement: How to Foster Developmentally Effective Parent-Student Partnerships” (Kari B. Taylor, an honors program advisor at Miami University), and “Purposefully Partnering With Parents” (John Wesley Lowery, Indiana University of Pennsylvania)
Taylor Article – Aiming to Redefine, Not Restrict, Parental Involvement
Opening with a vignette of a visit to an academic advisor of a student and his mother – told first from the perspective of the advisor and then from the perspective of the mother – the author makes a case for resisting the easy interpretation of parental involvement as overly intrusive or “helicopter” style. Particularly in the case of those students born after 1982 (dubbed “Millennial Generation:” by some social scholars), close connection to parents and extended periods of dependence in late adolescence/early adulthood is the norm.
There are social and historical reasons why the period of dependence on parents has lengthened in the past 20 years. Knowing that, student affairs professionals should have a plan for working with parents as well as students. It is generally the case that colleges and parents share the same goals for the student: learning, good decision-making, personal agency, happiness, replacing dependence with responsibility. We should expect to communicate with parents about several key aspects of what is going on at our college:
• What is the kind of learning environment that best engenders the development of personal agency and engaged learning?
• What are the aims of higher education, and our aims in particular?
• What do we know about the stages of development in late adolescence that will enable all of us to help the students develop independence, self-motivation, the ability to advocate for themselves and to make good decisions on their own?
When we have these kinds of conversations with parents, we engender trust, which enables the parents to feel more comfortable about “letting go” of their student in the new environment of the college. These conversations also enable more effective communication between parents and their students.
Student Affairs staff should reflect on what our expectations of appropriate parental involvement are. It may be time to redefine this in terms of what we know about the relationships of Millennial Generation children and their parents. The author offers some observations about why parents “hover.” First, the world is more and more often portrayed as a dangerous place, and parents feel a stronger need to protest their children from a host of potential dangers, large and small. Second, middle-class parents have in the past twenty years become more directly involved in their children’s K-12 educational world, and expect to continue that connection. This is less often true of poor or working-class parents, who are more likely to encourage their children’s independence at an earlier age. Third, it is obvious to parents that families or individuals are carrying more of the cost of higher education as governmental bodies cut their high education budgets. This often creates more of a consumer mentality.
What, then, constitutes appropriate involvement on the part of parents in their child’s higher education experience? The author suggests that parents cultivate the ability to ask open-ended questions that allow their student to take the lead in decision-making and responsibility for his or her own needs, resisting the temptation to tell their child what to do or imply answers to the questions that help the student to clarify his or her needs. In fact, that is also an appropriate involvement on the part of student affairs professionals, so we would be wise to take the same approach.
Lowery article – Purposefully Partnering with Parents
After giving a brief history of the shifting roles in the triangular relationship of students/parents/colleges, from the 300+ years of in loco parentis (in the place of the parents) to what Lowery calls in consortio cum parentibus (in partnership with parents), the author asserts that college staff should recognize that both parents and colleges have a shared goal of fostering students’ developing abilities to make good decisions for themselves. Before students can make wise and ethical decisions, they must be able to ask the right questions and get the necessary information and insights. Thus colleges and parents share an interest in giving students the guidance and opportunities to discover what these questions are.
Given that the Millennial generation’s reliance on parental involvement in decision-making appears to be greater than that of earlier generations, college staff should expect to work with parents as well as with students. Since 1974, FERPA policies have limited the types of information that college staff can provide to others, but there are areas in which FERPA rules allow colleges to set more or less restrictive internal policies. It is critical that each college have common internal practices and policies, fitting to its mission, which can be articulated and followed at all levels of the institution. It is safe to say that in all cases, FERPA rules allow us to speak in general about students and their needs and how the college seeks to meet them. There are many ways in which we can work in partnership with parents, with awareness of our shared goals for our students.