How to avoid falling into the parent trap

October 17, 2003

Students today come with mum and dad attached. Valerie Atkinson offers some advice on how to deal with them.

Sometimes, when a student's parent contacts a departmental office, there is no alternative but to withhold the information they desire (be it about academic progress, emotional crisis or even finance). In most cases, an apology and explanation about confidentiality will suffice, despite the temptation to say "you mean the one with the bright green mohican?" or "oh, her: she's too busy trafficking cocaine" or even "I've been meaning to get in touch - I'm about to give birth to your grandchild" (you probably think I made that up, but - believe me - I didn't). Occasionally, the heavy brigade (officers of the board of studies, head of department) has to prevent the onset of guerrilla warfare in the shape of an enraged mother or father unable to accept that their child has become independent. That trend is on the increase.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s (those heady days of wine and posers), prospective undergraduates had attitude. They strutted, or slouched, to admissions interviews, wearing an air of defiant independence and outfits that declared "I am an intellectual, a young-buck philosopher; I am (at very least) interesting." They turned up in crumpled suits from charity shops and unmatching shoes; or they draped themselves in flowing scarves and kaftans, thigh-length boots and fishnet tights. And that was just the boys. The key was to be inappropriate, to declare self-determination. A great deal of savoir faire was required to carry this off, but at least they tried. Very few fainted, or threw up publicly. Most managed to maintain an air of avant-garde nonchalance. They knew what university life was likely to require of them. They had a go at being grown up.

Now, the majority quite obviously have parents. Not content to deliver them for interviews and open days (shouldn't children who are ready to leave home learn how to use public transport and find their own way?), parents take part in the process. Paying customers with an urgent need to sample the product. You can almost hear them slapping open their wallets and counting the cost of educating their little darlings, as they attend introductory lectures and tut-tut their way around campus. The effect must be to engender the worst kind of inhibition in their youngsters. Not only are they prevented from practising a swagger, but at interview their minds must be paralysed by the pressure exerted by parental presence, albeit backstage. And making them get straight As in retribution for being so spineless is unlikely to work. If a department checks out, and the campus or the city is promising (especially if local property looks like providing a nice little earner), woe betide the flaky pupil who falls short of the required grades.

Increasingly, we admit students who are pressured to behave like bank clerks or City financiers and never question the established mores of their families. Maybe, to an extent, university staff are also to blame by failing to challenge this unquestioning conformity. We, too, have become duller. And we are sometimes afraid, very afraid. If there is any suggestion that, as teachers or bureaucrats, we have fallen short of our responsibilities by failing to interact dynamically with our charges, or by misunderstanding their problems, or - heaven help us - miscalculating their final degree marks, the fiery flames of litigation may await us. When the phone rings, and the caller announces themselves as mother or father of Tarquin or Christabel, there is an audible intake of breath. Is this the moment of reckoning? The day the university will be taken to court for breaching the Trade Descriptions Act? The day you will be taken to task for gross dereliction of duty? What you have to do is practise an air of defiant nonchalance, cross your fingers and hope that the only time you meet the parents is to celebrate graduation day.

But remember: if you are still here in 20 years, and that phone rings, it may be Tarquin or Christabel inquiring about their child's progress. With their lawyer in tow.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at the University of York.

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