Getting Back to the Basics. Getting Back to Bike Helmets

Barbara LoMonaco, Vice President for Student Affairs, Salve Regina University

July 20, 2018

I was a 10-year-old cowgirl. I grew up in Texas, mostly on a horse. Before the family got out of bed on the weekends, I’d bridle my horse (I was too small to lift a saddle) and ride out to explore the hundreds of acres that was our cattle ranch. I came home when I got hungry. I did not wear a helmet.

Many of us of a certain age recall similar free-range childhoods. Our parents did not program our free time, and we were left to invent our own entertainment, or join roving gangs of neighborhood children to play until the porch light came on.

As student affairs professionals, we’ve all read plenty about the radically different childhoods of our now “Gen Z” college students. They have helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, cell phones by the age of 10, and parents who curate every experience for them. The literature tells us they postpone driving, dating, and they really like their parents.  They also struggle mightily to adjust to college.

As I write this, it is orientation season. We spend our days serving on panels and giving presentations to incoming students and their families. We cover Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from bottom to top: food, shelter, safety, and cultivating the life of the mind through curricular and co-curricular engagement. 

We spend part of our time also developing messages to families, encouraging them to become “guides on the side.” We give presentations with titles like “Letting Go with Grace: A Guide for Parents and Families.” The message, veiled in different ways, is invariably “time for you to move over. back off.  skedaddle.”

After these kinds of presentations, families may approach us in a tentative manner to discuss a concern prefaced with “I don’t want to seem like a ‘helicopter’ parent, but…”

By telling them to back off, they may feel judged, defensive, and insecure about asking questions. Instead, I recommend that we couch our conversations with families about the transition to college in terms of the cultural landscape that has shaped their students’ lives. Rather than reviewing a litany of “don’ts,” move the conversation to cultural differences between their generation and their students’. Get back to the basics. Get back to bike helmets.

When families understand that a whole generation of students has been raised as digital natives and have fewer social skills because they’ve had less face time (and perhaps more FaceTime), it removes the stigma they may feel when their student struggles with interpersonal rapport. Moreover, it will increase the likelihood that they will be receptive to our advice about redefining their relationship with their student in ways that increase autonomy.

When we present data that supports the notion that adulthood is delayed for many students in this generation, parents feel united with one another rather than singled out as the helicopter/Blackhawk/snowplow parent. Illuminating the differences between their generation and their students’ can help them make sense of why adjustment to college is difficult for many in this current generation. By casting the problem in terms of culture, we step away from blaming and enlist families as valuable allies in supporting our students.

We may not ever cast off our helmets and return to the Wild West days, but we can encourage our students and families that exploring new territory can be empowering, rather than daunting.

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