You'll always be my baby

March 23, 2001

Overprotective parents rob their children of independence and keep them infants into their university years, argues Frank Furedi.

In the course of doing the research for my book Paranoid Parenting , it became evident that some of the problems associated with child-rearing were due to the fact that mothers and fathers were often confused about where to draw the line between adulthood and childhood. Consequently, they worry about the effects of disciplining their children and also feel uneasy about losing control if they do not punish them.

One provisional solution to this confusion is over-parenting. Many features of over-parenting -using surveillance technology to keep an eye on children, preventing kids from participating in outdoor unstructured activities, constant adult supervision -represent a form of control that serves as an alternative to parental discipline.

In this way, the issue of discipline is displaced and recast as a question of safety. Parents uncomfortable about refusing their daughter another piece of chocolate feel much more relaxed about imposing their will by preventing her from playing in the park with friends. Regulating children's lives on the grounds of safety is accepted without question as an act of good parenting. Over-reacting to the risks children face allows parents to maintain a semblance of control without exercising too much authority.

Over-parenting not only encroaches on the freedom of children to explore the world, it may also encourage an unconscious process of infantilisation. Constant adult supervision can weaken children's ability to manage risk, undermine their aspiration for independence and prolong adolescence. One dramatic manifestation of this process is the way in which it has become normal for "responsible" parents to assume the role of advocates of their children studying at university.

In 1997, when I reported in my book Culture of Fear that it has become common for parents to accompany their children to interviews and open days on campuses, a sub-editor accused me of inventing this development. As someone educated at a university in the 1970s, she thought that it was inconceivable that students would allow their parents to accompany them on an occasion that so strongly symbolised their assertion of independence. Her reaction served as a striking reminder of just how recent is the entry of the parent on the campus stage. In the past five years, the busybody parent has become a fixture of campus life. At open days and other promotional events, parents are often far more vocal than their children. Some universities publish literature expressly oriented towards the parent in a manner that suggests that life at university is an extension of the experience of schooling.

Not so long ago, many university students would have been embarrassed to be seen in the company of their mother and father. University provided an opportunity to break free of parental control. It was common for students to set up house on their own or with friends, and large numbers of them rarely visited their home during Easter and summer breaks. Now many university students are happy to revert to the relationship of dependence that characterised their school years. Far from resenting parental involvement in campus life, many students accept it as the natural state of events.

A growing proportion of university students live at home with their parents. In 1994, the percentage of first-year full-time undergraduates known to be living at home was 14.5 per cent. By 1999, this figure had risen to 20.1 per cent. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service also reports that the number of university and college applicants who want to live at home while studying is on the increase.

This trend is often explained as the outcome of the economic plight facing university students. While many students opt to live at home for this reason, economics does not satisfactorily explain this phenomenon. Ucas chief executive Tony Higgins says many students "often like the security of their home, their family and friends around them when they start at university".

This desire for security is expressed in other ways. In recent years, I have noted that many of the students who return home during Easter and summer break continue to pay rent on their digs. It is clearly not a lack of money that inspires the return to the parental home. Moreover, economic problems do not seem to act as a barrier to young people spending large amounts of money on entertainment and travel. A survey published last month indicated that 20 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds spend on average Pounds 3,000 a year on travel.

The stay-at-home trend continues to operate even in post-university years. The most striking confirmation of the process of infantilisation is the growing trend for young women and especially young men to continue to live at home well into their 30s. The recently published Social Trends survey found that nearly a third of men aged 20-35 live with their parents, compared with only one in four in 1977-78. Other surveys indicate that the number of men aged 30-34 who live with their parents has increased by 20 per cent in the past five years.

It would be one-sided to associate the growing phenomenon of stay-at-home 30-year-olds entirely with over-parenting. The state of delayed adolescence is the outcome of wider cultural and institutional influences that treat the process of growing up as a never-ending fact of life.

In the sphere of education, the idea of lifelong learning invites people to regard themselves as permanent students, who remain dependent on professional teachers until their last breath. The concept of lifelong learning reflects cultural norms that call into question notions of distinct developmental stages. From this perspective, there is no clear line that divides the youthful learner from the intellectually self-sufficient mature adult. The success of the project of prolonging dependency on professional educators parallels the development of cultural norms that discount the idea of adult independence.

The flip side of lifelong learning is that people never quite grow up. Cultural trends dispute adult authority and treat claims to maturity with scepticism. Since the 1960s and the institutionalisation of youth culture, many parents have felt uncomfortable with their roles as "responsible adults". Not surprisingly, some parents do not want their children simply to like them, but also want to be like them. Everyone knows a forty-something father who feels that he has a "lot more growing" to do.

It appears that these Peter Pan adults have done an excellent job in transmitting "for ever young" values to their children. And the fact that university authorities have been more than happy to preside over the infantilisation of campus life has further dulled the appetite for the responsibilities of adult life.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent. His book Paranoid Parenting is published by Penguin, £9.99.

Where your study partner is your mum

Research in the United Kingdom shows that parents are becoming increasingly involved in their offspring's education, including higher education. A recent Manchester University study found that parents are now more influential than teachers in choice of university and course.

But the UK still has a long way to go to catch up with the United States, where some universities have offices of parental relations to handle parents' concerns. A few go even further. Arizona State University offers a distance-learning course to the parents of first-year students. The parents log on once a week and discuss how to help students deal with the numerous problems they face. They have weekly assignments and online lectures on issues such as counselling so that they can get a better grasp of what university life is about.

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