Dani Garavelli: A time for parents to grow up and let go

YOU’D think that having raised a child to the age of 18, you’d be glad to see the back of them. That’s how it was in my day. When the time came for you to make your own way in the world, your parents didn’t so much loosen the apron strings as slash them off with a knife. They had better things to do than involve themselves in the minutiae of your existence. So you set off for college or university and you were truly on your own. It was scary, but it was also thrilling: all those choices to be made, all those challenges to be met. You knew there would be times when you would be homesick, lonely, out of your depth. But the last thing you wanted was for your parents to bail you out because that would be an admission of defeat.

It’s very different these days, or so we’re told. Now, helicopter parents want to be involved in every aspect of their children’s lives even after they come of age and move on to higher education. Those same mums and dads who, ten years ago, were boasting about their kids’ IQs and complaining if they weren’t picked for the school team, are not only accompanying their little hothouse plants to university open days, but grilling the staff about every aspect of campus life, as if they were the potential applicants. Worse, they are still hanging around at Fresher’s Week, sometimes bunking over in their sons or daughters’ dorms, and offering them unsolicited advice on what clubs to join.

Understandably, it’s driving the academics mad. Last week, David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, Oxford, revealed his college’s catering bills had soared as open days turned into family outings. Personally, I can’t imagine anything more humiliating than having your parents ask in-depth questions about set texts when all you’re interested in is locating the union bar.

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Even once their babes have flown the nest, some mothers and fathers feel the need to keep checking up on them. Friends whose son recently moved into a shared flat have told how some students’ parents phoned the landlord to complain about leaky pipes and dirty fridges. Such parents may be trying to make themselves indispensable, but they’re going to end up feeling resentful and unappreciated, as – not being middle-aged – their kids are unlikely to place much value on such fripperies as a properly maintained home.

This type of overbearing behaviour surely strips young adults of any motivation to sort things out for themselves: why bother to learn how to unblock a sink or bleed a radiator when your ever-indulgent parents are willing to pop over at a second’s notice to sort it out for you?

This is where technology can be a curse. While saving up 10p coins and queuing in the rain to make your weekly call home was unpleasant, the lack of any more accessible form of communication both relieved us of the burden of keeping in touch on a more regular basis and prevented us from taking the easy way out. Mobiles – dubbed the world’s longest umbilical cords – mean that even if you’re drunk/stoned/having sex with a stranger, you can never be sure your parents won’t check up on you. If they’re into Skyping they’ll be able to see how you haven’t eaten/slept/washed behind your ears. Equally, though, mobile phones mean you can call for back-up the minute something goes wrong. A computer that crashes on deadline? A microwave that refuses to heat up your ready meal? Just dial M for Mother.

Perhaps the worst thing these parents do to their children, though, is to encourage them to appeal every poor grade they ever receive. They may be old enough to marry, vote and buy alcohol, but they are not allowed to experience failure, even if they have courted it.

There are – sociologists speculate – several reasons why modern mums and dads have become so enmeshed in their offspring’s lives; a reduction in the average number of children couples have, combined with the absence of extended relatives, means families are more insular. Add to this the fact that many couples don’t start having children until they are in their mid to late 30s, and have more money to spend on them once they do, thus making them more emotionally invested in their achievements.

According to the universities, however, parents also have an economic imperative to keep meddling in their children’s lives. With the introduction of tuition fees, they have a financial stake in their success. In the good old days of grants and housing benefits, if students chose a pointless course or spent their afternoons switched on to Neighbours instead of Nietzsche, it was government money they were squandering. But if you’re forking out £9,000 a year then you’re going to expect a return on your investment. You’re not going to be happy if, instead of gaining a first and heading off to the City, your walking pension plan drops out and moves to a squat. Even in Scotland – which has been spared tuition fees – parents may be going without to pay for their kids’ accommodation. Naturally, they are less inclined to accept substandard living conditions.

Still you have to wonder how young people comforted by the whirring of rotor blades and the presence of their own personal rescue mission hovering nearby are ever going to learn to fend for themselves. And it can’t be good for the parents either to live vicariously instead of notching up exciting new experiences of their own. I’m not saying I’ll find it easy to let go. I already exhibit so many helicopter tendencies it’s a miracle my children don’t call me Budgie. But when it comes to them leaving home, I hope I’ll have the self-discipline to take a step back. With any luck, I’ll be ready to start my new life and let them get on with living theirs. That way, I won’t be stuck with their dirty washing. «