Palo Alto, Calif. — Invariably, when I would tell people that for the past eight months I have lived apart from my husband and 20-something children while on a fellowship at Stanford University, I would be asked how often I called home. Inevitably, when I would say, "Oh, every week or two," a semi-stunned look would cross the questioner's face. The subject would be quickly dropped, but for me an aftertaste would linger as I wondered if there was something wrong with my relationships or with me.
That is, until I realized the luxury I was afforded - the simple luxury to be alone. The very word has taken on creepy and scary overtones, but in truth being alone means being on your own. And that truly is a wondrous thing.
It's a realization I have come to from watching the students who surround me on Stanford's campus. These young men and women are some of the nation's most able, smart and ambitious, with prosperous futures awaiting them. I am in awe of them, and I have delighted in their company. Yet I feel a sadness for them, because many don't seem to be living their lives on their own but rather trying to live up to the ideas their parents have for them.
Take the young woman I met last fall in a beginning golf class. Set to graduate this spring, she was enrolled in golf because she figured it would help her in the business world. Of course, as she admitted to me, she really didn't want to go into business. What she wanted to do was to be a teacher, but she knew her parents would be disappointed if she did that. "Maybe," she said, "I could do a couple years of corporate and then teach."
Or listen to the lament of the creative-writing professor about how his most talented students are engineering or science majors who won't for a minute consider developing and pursuing their considerable writing skills because of the expectations of parents.
The most ubiquitous symbol of parental control in the lives of these college students is the cell phone. Walk in the bookstore at the start of an academic quarter, and you will overhear students consulting Mom over whether it makes more sense to buy used books or new. Listen as classes break up, and you will hear students summarizing, in calls home, the lectures they just heard. And of course no day can be complete without a review of the food eaten that day.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, dean of freshmen and transfer students at Stanford, said that such instances are fast becoming the norm. She recently asked a small group of students how often they talked to their parents. Half said every day, with one student admitting she was in touch with home three times a day. Lythcott-Haims, who worries that students will fail to develop the skills to live independently, told the troubling story of a young woman who, unsure of the location of one of her classes, called her mother - in another time zone! - for help.
The phenomenon is not unique to Stanford. A recent national survey by College Parents of America, based in Arlington, Va., found that three out of four college parents are in touch "two to three times a week" with their children, with more than one in three communicating daily. Psychologists have adopted a phrase for these people: helicopter parents, because they hover over the lives of their children. The media have chronicled the more outlandish tales. And university and college officials across the country have tried to lay down guidelines telling parents how to let up and let go.
It hasn't seemed to have had much of an effect. Most parents think someone else is the problem, not them. Consider the story one young woman related about her mother: "She really lets me be on my own. She doesn't call that much .... Of course, I do have to e-mail her every day." Moreover, there is an apparent belief by some that this intense involvement is actually a good thing - a sign (as if one were needed) that parents and children actually like each other.
Eavesdropping on a young man who was telling his mother what time he went to bed the previous night, I rejoiced in my situation. I hadn't spoken to my family in over a week, and so my thoughts were free to stay with the biography of Leo Tolstoy I was reading and to take in the silence of a walk amid the foothills that ring the campus - time much better spent than reporting on the Lean Cuisine I ate for dinner.
I am 54, and until this year I had never really been on my own - from childhood home to college roommates to marriage and family - until a fellowship well into my career landed me on a university campus 3,000 miles away with the chance to pause and make my own discoveries.
I could be a parent to the men and women who sit beside me in the lecture halls. And, so when, the other day, a young woman explained that what she really loved about Stanford was the fact that she didn't have to grow up, I wanted to say: No one wants to grow up. But everyone needs to grow.