To Stay Connected…or Not to Stay Connected?

Posted on October 11, 2010 by Ellen Wein

I’ve recently returned from parents’ weekend at Penn State University, where my oldest daughter is a freshman. In the seven weeks since she left home, we’ve Skyped a few times, texted and had the occasional phone call. (The phone calls generally come at random times as she’s crisscrossing the massive campus.)

I’ve tried mightily to leave her alone, as my parents did with me. I used to see how many weeks I could go before I broke down and called home, while my mom sent the occasional cheery note by snail mail. Although I think I’ve succeeded in giving my daughter space, she, often daily, pings me about one thing or another via text. So far, it tends to involve money or the war against the gazillion germs infecting her. Ah, college life!

Her life at college is actually wonderful, wireless and well oiled. There’s no landline in the room—or even in the entire dorm. Bursar bills billow electronically. Online is just the prescription for booking doctor appointments. Questions can be posed to faculty, and responses received from them, 24/7. My daughter and her roommate even text each other from desk to desk (blessedly just for comic relief). Plans with friends are made and shuffled all day long by text, and meeting updates for clubs are posted to the group’s Facebook wall—all received in the palm of her hand. The many Sarahs and Nicoles are added with their last names to her cell-phone address book.

She’s got her whole world in her hand, literally. The only time she used her fully loaded computer all weekend was to print a paper so that I could edit it with a red pen. (It’s a privilege I granted because I was there in real time—I had drawn the line on continuing to be her editor when she left home.) That’s the only paper we’ve exchanged in weeks.

When we walked past the row of mailboxes in the dining hall, she lamented that she hadn’t received a single shred of snail mail since she moved in. I lamented that I hadn’t received anything from her either!

We’re certainly not the only family trying to make our way through a world of new means of communicating during college. The university is establishing a Parents Council to ensure that parents are plugged in to their students’ experiences at Penn State, a growing trend among campuses across the country. You might say it’s an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy. A senior university official remarked that it’s an important initiative, since kids can inform their parents about what’s going on—good or bad—with the flick of a wrist. The university needs a way to add context, correct erroneous information or, in the case of a recent Wall Street Journal article about the university, spread the good news fast. And, of course, connected parents will more readily connect with the school through their checkbook.

As a communicator, the Parents Council made perfect sense. And I felt I could contribute my insights. The application to serve was passed out, and I eagerly started filling it out. I got stuck on the line where I needed to assert that I fundamentally believe parents should stay involved during their student’s college experience. All along, I’ve asserted that my daughter shouldn’t come home until Thanksgiving. I have adamantly believed that my job as a parent is to teach my daughter to go out into the world as an independent adult.

I had two hours and 45 minutes to think about it on the drive home. I had just left my giddy, go-getting girl who had made the campus her own in just a month and a half. Why would I not want to be part of this latest phase of her life—her metamorphosis into adulthood?

To stay connected, or not to stay connected? That is the question. The answer I found in my heart, not my head, pulsing to the beat of my BlackBerry.

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    1. Marian Salzman October 17, 2010 at 7:40 pm

      This is a great honest post. Probably captures the dilemma of how much connectivity is too much better because of its humane tone.

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