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Should Parents Cut Digital Apron Strings With Their Kids?

Tech makes it easy to keep in touch but it may not be good for them — or you

spinner image teenager walking and texting with a red thread tied around his waist leading to a digital cursor
Illustration by Lehel Kovács​

I went to college in that prehistoric era: Before iPhone. If my mother wanted to reach me, she’d have to dial the dorm pay phone — in my memory, forever ringing unanswered at the end of a long, dark hall. How things had changed by the time my own two kids got ready for launching: I was literally in their pockets. Today parents can check out an offspring’s party pics on Instagram or monitor their whereabouts using family tracking apps such as Life360.

Is this weird? The Clay Center for Healthy Young Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital says that 71 percent of parents of college students send at least three texts per day to their child at school. Half say they communicate as much with their kids at college as they did when they were at home. (My family was below the mean, making do with regular “text if you need anything!” reminders, occasional FaceTime sessions and a steady diet of pet photos.) Experts say parents are in the middle of a huge social experiment: Are cellphones a brilliant new tool to provide support to fledgling adults? Or do they just give parents a longer flight path to helicopter indefinitely?

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Julie Lythcott-Haims is a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and the author of Your Turn: How to Be an Adult. She’s noticed a recent cultural trend toward "intensive” parenting that extends into a child’s college years and beyond. Like a dutiful concierge, some parents feel they need to remain available around the clock to solve hassles and meet requests. “It can be hard simply stopping when you get to this next stage of life,” Lythcott-Haims says.

A Communication Gender Gap

Average number of texts between college students and their ...

Fathers: 3 per day

Mothers: 8 per day

Source: “Digital Parenting of Emerging Adults in the 21st Century,” Social Sciences, 2021

That may be reassuring to worried parents, but it’s not necessarily good for the kids. Young adulthood is about establishing independence, says Kayla Reed-Fitzke, an assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Iowa. “It’s an important time for what is called differentiation — the process of finding your own identity as separate from, but still connected to, your family.”

So-called helicopter parenting has been associated with lower levels of self-worth in college-age students. These kids need space to develop the skills to cope with life’s everyday challenges, says Lythcott-Haims. “That’s how they get confidence and a sense that we trust them.”

From what we’ve heard, the kids aren’t necessarily complaining. “This generation grew up with technology,” Reed-Fitzke says. “They may feel it’s normal or even expected that parents continue to be highly engaged in this way.” Veronica Arreola of Chicago, mother of a college sophomore, is looking for the right balance. “I gave my daughter a lot of space when she first left. I checked in no more than once a week,” she says. “I was direct: ‘I want to give you the chance to grow.’ A couple of months in, she said, ‘It’s OK, Mom! I want you to check in!’ ”

Renee Nerenberg, a senior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, video-calls her parents once a week and texts often, adding that her roommate is also close to her family. “They call every night to check in,” Nerenberg says.

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So how do you know how much digital communication with your kids is too much? Here are some expert tips on walking that sometimes confusing line.

Set expectations. Agree on a communication plan. Shoot for a video call every Sunday, for example, but revisit the plan as needed after everyone settles in to this new routine.

Follow their cues. If you’re messaging several times a day but your child is replying hours later with a three-word text, step back. Let them set the pace, suggests Kara Kornher, a psychologist who works with students at California State University San Marcos. “Take comfort in the fact your child is making a shift to independence.”

Empower them. If your kid needs to find a nearby dentist, for instance, you may get a phone call. “Don’t swoop in and solve,” says Lythcott-Haims. Instead, offer compassion, then ask, “How do you think you’re gonna solve that, honey?”

Establish your own boundaries. “If your child is calling you five times a day, I would nudge them towards consolidating the contact,” says Kornher. “It’s fine to say, ‘Let’s talk at the end of the day after work, so I can give you my full attention.’ ” (Of course, if you suspect they are reaching out so often because they are anxious or depressed, address the matter directly, she advises.)

Resist the urge to stalk. It can be tempting to keep tabs by checking your child’s Instagram or TikTok. Maybe it’s time to hide them from your feed, to give them the privacy you enjoyed back in the day.

Keep it low-pressure. Students, too, may be struggling to figure out the rules of engagement. Charlotte Zehnder, a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, says that in the day-to-day bustle, she sometimes feels “guilty” for not reaching out to her parents more often. Catherine Newman, mom of two and author of How to Be a Person, offers a low-key, high-tech suggestion. “My family has an ongoing group chat,” she says. “I might suggest everybody share a picture of their weekend, or I’ll post an update about the cat. It keeps us connected without being oppressive to anybody.”

After all, in what will seem like mere minutes, your children will be grown and launched. Once they’re no longer dependent, their relationship with you becomes largely voluntary, says Newman, “and that’s a beautiful thing.”

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