The Old College Pry
Veronica Writing

It’s hard to let our kids go. The day our babies head out on their own, whether in the direction of their own apartment or a college dorm room, is a tough one for any parent.

When the time came for our first chick, The Piglet, to fly off on her own, David escorted her to college while I stayed home to tend the nest.

I bravely smiled and waved as I deposited them on the plane -- then sat in my car in the airport parking lot and cried like Tammy Faye Bakker on the second day of her period. It was a regular air-sucking, mascara-dripping, please-God-nobody-see-me sob fest.

Not my finest moment.

Back at home with the two remaining chicks, I thankfully was able to focus my helicopter mom hover on their antics. It was a darn good thing they needed me because I might have followed The Piglet to college.

Life went on as well as could be expected until The Piglet’s first semester ended and I didn’t have access to grades. Seriously? I’m paying tens of thousands of dollars for college and I DON’T EVEN GET TO SEE THE GRADES?! WTH?

When I spoke to The Piglet about it, I was told, “Duh, Mom, I’m an adult now and you can’t just look at my records.”

The helicopter mom in me bristled. After all, any hovering mother knows that grades are a large indicator -- a snapshot of how a kid’s life is going. But really, is it our business once they go to college?

Turns out The Piglet was correct (damn!).

College students are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which expressly forbids a college or university to disclose grades to parents. Many institutions offer a waver for the students to sign allowing parental access, but personally, I would think long and hard before asking my kid to do this. This is a time in their lives when a bit of privacy goes a long way towards self-reliance and maturity.

According to the University of Michigan website:

“If you wish to find out about your student's grades and academic standing, the best approach is to ask your son or daughter directly. College students are generally willing to share information about grades and academic performance with their parents as they assume greater responsibility for their own lives and are able to discuss academic issues with their parents as mature adults.”

In my case, the U of M website advice hit the mark dead-on. The Piglet strutted off to college as an I-know-everything teenager intent on world domination. Imagine my shock when I received a phone call during her sophomore year asking my opinion on what classes she should take. She hadn't asked for my thoughts on anything since The Great Puberty Wars.

My year off from helicoptering had done us both a lot of good and I was ecstatic over my new role as an enthusiastic sounding board. Go figure, I was able to simply listen and allow her to sort things out for herself. Progress, indeed.

FERPA restrictions and sage advice from universities aside, professors receive phone calls and e-mails from parents to discuss grades. Even I think this a huge breech of protocol and I’m one of the biggest, crazy recovering helicopter moms there is.

So I wondered, is it ever appropriate for a parent to contact a professor?

“No,” says Ohio State Lecturer Jason Payne, “Once you are in college, you are supposed to be an adult.”

Nevertheless, Payne does receive calls, many times irate, from parents.

He recounted a story about a student athlete who turned in an assignment that consisted of a review plagiarized from a book jacket. Word for word. After Payne issued a failing grade, Mommy called up to give him a piece of her mind. She let him know that her son was a sports star and the first in the family to attend college. “How dare he” give her son such a grade.

Another parent, a college professor no less, explained to Payne that he had proofread his son’s final essay and proclaimed it a great paper. The paper was full of unsupported claims including the “fact” that AIDS wouldn’t exist in Africa if the Africans were Christian -- with no evidence to back it up. The icing on this cake came a year when Payne bumped into the student and was addressed as “douchebag“.

I’m beginning to understand the lack of maturity this type of parental involvement begets, as I have met Mr. Payne and he is hardly a douchebag.

Dr. Matthew Ramsey, an Assistant Professor at Salve Regina University is not as emphatic about parental contact. When asked about the appropriateness of parental contact he said,

“It’s perfectly understandable why a parent might want to contact a professor, particularly if they can’t get any answers from their children, or from the administration. Of course, that doesn’t mean the professor is obligated to respond. I’ve always responded to parent inquiries when allowed, and although they aren’t always terribly productive discussions, I think it’s better than ignoring parent requests for information.”

Dr. Ramsey has also received e-mails from less-than-happy parents,

“I got a very long e-mail explaining why my decision to fail a student for plagiarizing was misguided, short-sighted, unfair, etc. It all came down to the claim that this parent’s child would never knowingly cheat, how great this student was, how dedicated, how hard-working and the rest. Parents have a hard time acknowledging that their children are in fact human, capable of making mistakes, stressed out a great deal of the time and sometimes willing to take shortcuts.”

Bill Sinfield, Headmaster of Good Hope Country Day School, related a whopper of story,

“During the time that I was completing my Masters of Educational Leadership at Simon Fraser University, I was waiting outside the office of the Dean of the Department of Education. I was joined by the mother of a student at the school. The lady was clearly agitated and told me that she was there to complain to the Dean about a mark her daughter had received for a Case Study that she had written. According to the mother, her daughter had been unfairly assessed because she had lost marks for poor writing skills.

"The mother's concern was that those writing skills had been poorly taught in high school, so she should not be held responsible. She said that it was ridiculous that the university should be penalizing students for mistakes in their writing, especially since the public schools in the province were so inadequate. Note: British Columbia public schools are ranked among the best in the world.

"I let her go in to the Dean's office before me...

"After thirty minutes of hearing through the closed door her shrieking voice and his calm but decisive responses, I knew that the Dean had made it clear that the mark would not change.

The door to his office then flung open, she rushed past me through the outer office, and her last comment was, 'I'm going to speak to the President (presumably of the University but who knows), about this!'

"The Dean then came to his office door, and with a very strained smile on his face, said, 'Come on in, Bill.' When I sat down in his office, I said, 'That sounded a bit animated.' He couldn't contain his exasperation, and he disclosed to me that it was the second time the women had come to him to complain about a mark that her daughter received.”

Both Payne and Ramsey have had suspicions that a parent has written an assignment for a student. Ramsey adds,

“Suspected, yes. Caught, no. And I’m pretty sure there’s no real way to prove it. Students will sometimes tell me a parent (usually a teacher or professor) helped them proofread / edit a paper or assignment, and I’m sure in some cases there might have been more parent input than is appropriate. But unlike typical cases of plagiarism or cheating, there’s very little you can do in those instances beyond reminding the student of their responsibilities, what constitutes cheating.”

Here’s where I shine, I’m just too lazy to be THAT involved.

Actually, behavior like this makes me wonder why people shell out the money for college at all. I mean, seriously, how is this helping?

A college degree may help in landing a job but I’m guessing that once the employer realizes his employee is illiterate he'll find a replacement and Junior is sent packing. The likelihood of ending up with a boomerang “kid” is deterrent enough for me to keep my big nose out of my kid‘s school work.

So does parental interference affect a student’s development?

“Yes, of course, says Ramsey, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean the effect is negative or detrimental. I have a lot of students who are frequently given pep talks, or threatened, by their parents to keep up with their work, to attend class regularly, etc. Some of them don’t appreciate it, and kick against the traces, but it usually doesn’t affect their classroom performance. And in some instances I think that parent/child relationship has helped some of my 'flightier' students buckle down and stay focused.”

Says Payne,

“I believe that smothering parental behavior at the university level stifles a student’s imagination and creative thinking. The danger is that they lose a healthy sense of wonder, the immenseness of all there is to know.”

Heady stuff that. And I personally refuse to be a part of it.

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Delve Deeper:
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YOUR TURN: You've heard my thoughts, what are yours? How much is too much? Is there a middle ground? Should parents have access to college students' grades? Is it ever appropriate to contact a professor?

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