I went to college not so many years ago, but in terms of communication technology, it might as well have been another century. Once my parents moved me into my freshman dorm room that late August day when I was 18 years old, and then drove away from my new campus to head back home, I really was away at college.
And that was the case for all of my college classmates too – even the ones whose childhood homes weren’t actually located that many physical miles away from the university we all attended together. Once all the mothers and fathers departed after that first move-in weekend, our campus and the adjacent neighborhood became a world of its own, largely isolated from the worlds from which we’d all just come.
There was no Internet of course. And there were no cell phones. There weren’t even any telephones of any description in our actual dorm rooms. This was back in the day – not that long ago, I swear! – when college students’ telephone conversations took place on the pay phones installed in dormitory hallways and common areas. And with one or maybe two pay phones per floor, and no privacy when talking on them, none of my dorm buddies nor I found it very appealing to make or receive too many phone calls to/from our parents. It was just too much hassle, what with the quarters you had to keep dropping into the phone, and the people tapping you on the shoulder to ask when you were going to be off, not to mention those too-short cords that awkwardly tethered you to the phone hanging halfway up the wall. Plus, calling anyone you might actually want to talk to required someone – you or the person on the other end of the line – to pay the not-insignificant long distance charges that racked up with every minute that passed. Thus, when you did use the dorm phones to call parents or take a call from them, the chats were usually relatively brief.
Of course, there was mail. Not email, but wonderful, real, stamped, tactile envelopes that would make your whole day brighter when they showed up in your little locked mail slot. There were letters from your parents and grandparents, your high school BFFs now off at college somewhere else, and best of all, letters from boyfriends attending school (or not) elsewhere while you toiled away on your own campus. I saved every just about every single letter that anyone ever sent me during my 4 years of college, and my big box of college letters remains to this day one of my most treasured possessions. I love pulling them out periodically and re-reading what advice my father had for me – all of his letters were written on yellow legal pads – as well as reading each of my grandmother’s messily typed updates on the latest gossip from back home. Both of them wrote me pretty much every week during most of the time I was in college. And there are actual, honest-to-God love letters from various boys with whom I was in and out of love during those years. Funny, sweet, clever letters someone actually took the time to write up and mail off to me. I kept all those too.
But other than the letters that might arrive in my dorm mail slot a couple of times a month, and the very occasional phone call, once I left home to live on my university’s campus, I really was pretty much on my own – functionally disconnected to a large degree from everyone who didn’t also live on or very near campus with me.
During my college years, my parents never really had any specific idea of what I was doing on a day to day basis – what happened in class that day, or what party I planned to attend that night – and neither did any of my friends’ parents. That’s the way college was then, and was supposed to be. My parents would have found it bizarre and unhealthy if I’d communicated with them daily or even close to that often after they’d paid my tuition and rent, and departed for home without me.
But now that my own daughter has just started her freshman year – the first of my offspring to hit this big and exciting milestone – she and I absolutely do communicate pretty much daily. She’s attending the same large university that I did, and the physical distance between campus where she now lives and our home where I live isn’t very far. However, that isn’t the reason why we continue to remain in such close contact; in fact, her friends in the dorm whose families happen to live many hundreds of miles away are also in daily or near-daily contact with their parents – and their mothers in particular.
I haven’t actually seen my child in person since her little brother and I moved her into her dorm room 2.5 weeks ago, leaving her behind on campus to start her freshman year. But my daughter and I do text and email daily or almost daily, and sometimes, multiple times per 24 hours period.
And you know what? I love it that because of technology, I get to keep up this running dialogue with her as she’s undertaking this new adventure. I love that she sends me quick iPhone pix of what she and her friends are up to – in the dorm, in the cafeteria, during sorority rush and around campus, and in return, I regularly text and email her pix & little videos from back at the ranch – photos of her little brother and sisters, of shoes I am thinking of buying, of the unbelievably giant spider that showed up in our kitchen…
And again, this isn’t a behavior that’s unique to me and my kid. Her roommate, suitemates and classmates on campus do the same. And if we parents want to actually speak to our 18 and 19 year olds, or they to us, there’s line to get a few minutes on the shared pay phone in the middle of a dorm floor hallway. Instead we just call one another quickly and easily with the same pocket-sized devices we’ve been using to exchange all those texts and pix between home and campus.
Despite how easily and frequently my college freshman and I have been connecting since she moved onto campus, I am trying hard to squelch my impulse to communicate with my 18 year old at the even more frequent level that we did until a few weeks ago. Before she started her freshman year, while she was still my teenage child living at home, I required her to check in with me regularly via text or phone call when she was out after school or on the weekends and at night with friends. On the rare occasions in the last year or two when she ran later getting home than I’d expected her, I could easily track down where she was via cell phone (including using the iPhone’s “Find my Friends” GPS feature), and since I also knew all her friends’ cell numbers (as well as their mothers’ numbers), I could easily text or call someone else to ease my worries in the event that her own phone had died or she had poor cell service wherever she was. And the same was true for her – whether she was at school or somewhere else, and no matter where I was – including when I would travel for my job – she knew she could communicate with me quickly, easily and reliably, and she did.
Also, on more than a few occasions during her teenage years, she knew where I was or what I was doing, and I knew what she was up to without either of us ever even having to check in directly with one another. Both of us follow the other on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, all of which offer yet another constant connection and source of info flowing back and forth between us on an ongoing basis.
And none of that constant communication between mother and daughter suddenly stopped after I drove away from her dorm a few weeks back, leaving her behind on her university campus with her new roommate and a bunch of other people who were entirely new to her, and also totally unknown to me. Late that same move-in day, just before midnight when she finally hit the sack, she sent me and the rest of our family a little video she’d made showing how her dorm room looked with everything (almost) put away and in place. I was so happy to see how much fun she was having already. I texted her back to tell her I loved her, and to sleep tight.
This kind of everyday back and forth conversation between my college student and me feels normal and appropriate to me as her mom, and apparently to a lot of other moms of college freshmen too. It doesn’t feel like I’m keeping her tethered to my apron strings in an unhealthy way. But does that mean that my own parents and all of their friends with college aged kids were wrong? Which is it? Were my parents right in their belief that part of the value in me leaving the nest for college at age 18 was that I had to learn to overcome homesickness and longing for mom & dad by basically being cut off cold turkey once they deposited me on campus? Or Is it a good, healthy thing that today’s parents of college students know what our kids are doing on a daily or even hourly basis even though they’re “away” at college?
Twenty years ago, a college freshman who chatted with his or her mom every day or more than once a day would have been considered maladjusted, and the parent who encouraged such behavior would have been labeled clingy, hovering and unable to let go. But nowadays, wouldn’t it seem just as odd if a freshman didn’t check in with her mom regularly via text, email or a quick call to let her know what she’s up to and how her week is going? Does the fact that I can – and do- keep up with my college student’s day to day life via her Twitter feed and Instagram account make me a helicopter parent?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Maybe y’all do, and I’d love to hear what you think. In the meantime, however, it’s Saturday night, and the first home football game at my daughter’s school ended about an hour ago with a big win for the home team. I happen to know – because remember, I went to the same university once upon a time – what’s happening on campus tonight: parties, parties… and a few more parties. But I promise that I’m not going to text my 18 year old freshman at any point this evening to ask her where she is, who she’s with, what she’s doing, or what time she plans to be back in her dorm room for the night.
Because that would be wrong of me as a parent, right?
(Addendum: Less than one minute after I hit “publish” on this blog post, she texted me to tell me what a fun time she had at the game…)
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