UC Berkeley News


 Parents accustomed to doing it all for their kids often have to recalibrate their expectations once the youngsters head off for college. Most of them handle the transition with relatively few hiccups - but a few "helicopter parents" can't help hovering, at least until a Cal Parents veteran talks them out of the skies. (Peg Skorpinski photos)

It's a relative thing . . .
For some, the start of college is fraught with angst, fear, and other emotional baggage. Someday, maybe students will understand

| 30 August 2006

They're all moved in by now, the 4,200-plus members of Berkeley's 2006 freshman class, acclimating to newfound independence and the syncopated rhythms of college life.

As most learned in high school, however, Newton's Laws of Motion state that every action has an equal but opposite reaction. Which means that as students settle in, parents everywhere are freaking out.

Nobody knows that better than Diana Musto, director of Cal Parents, and the unit's former associate director, Julie Layne, who emerges from retirement each fall to help distraught moms and dads - not to mention Musto - cope with Move-In Days, the kickoff to Welcome Week and the moment of truth when freshmen and family members, laden with luggage and gear, cross the thresholds of the students' new residence-hall dwellings.

To eager young freshmen, that step can mean the dawn of a future so bright they've got to wear shades. What some parents see, on the other hand, is the end of the world as they've known it for 18 years. It's a relative thing.

"There are a lot of tears on Move-In Day," says Layne, especially if the freshman is an only child or the first to go off to college. "There's this feeling that your whole family dynamic is different now than it ever has been. And that's probably not true. Yes, there are some changes. But you're still going to have the same kind of relationship. They're just growing up."

"And then," adds Musto, "you have the conversation with a mom where you say, 'You want them to grow up, you want them to be able to handle relationships and all the kinds of things you want them to be strong for.' And she tells you, 'I don't think I can say goodbye, I don't think I can let go.' Some of these moms, my heart just breaks for them."

Berkeley alums themselves with grown children of their own, Musto and Layne know firsthand what it's like to pack kids off to college, an experience they draw on heavily in their efforts to calm the fears of worried parents - whether those fears are rational or not. As the voice of the Cal Parents helpline, it's Musto's year-round job to guide them through what, for many, is a rockier passage than it is for their teenage offspring. Until she retired three years ago, Layne was her helpline partner; like Musto, she spent much of the start of the fall semester on the phone, taking calls that might last as long as 90 minutes each. (Once the initial panic subsides, both stress, the majority of the calls are routine requests for information, not marathon counseling sessions.)

As for parental angst, the sources evolve as the school year progresses, they say, ranging from roommate issues (beginning almost immediately) to academics (a sharp anxiety spike right after midterms) to alcohol and safety issues. At the start of the fall semester, though, freshman parents are struggling chiefly with one thing: letting go. And the volume of struggling is on the upswing.

"I'm stunned by the number of calls I've had in the last week," Musto says. "I'm absolutely stunned. Almost every single time I'm on the phone, the call-waiting beep is in my ear." With incoming freshmen hailing from 44 states and 40 countries, the calls are apt to spring from practically anywhere. And with nearly one in five members of the freshman class the first in their families to attend a university, there's a lot of uncertainty back home about what their kids have gotten themselves into.

"You do have some helicopter parents," says Layne, employing the term of art for parents who hover needlessly and, often, self-servingly - those who insist their children are homesick, for instance, when in fact they're the ones who have lost their moorings. "But you also have parents who just don't know what they're in for - it's uncharted waters."

"The parents, just like the students, are a cross section," she adds. "They run the gamut from the super-controlling to 'Hey, he'll make his own way.' You have the parents who are there at 6 o'clock in the morning, even though you can't check in until 10. They're going to be the first ones in line, and they've got everything organized, everything's been on the living-room floor for a month and a half, getting packed and repacked. And then you have the other people who say, 'I'm not going to get there till about 1, I don't need to get in the middle of that parking craziness."

Not surprisingly, Musto and Layne hear more from the former group than the latter. They agree that most concerns stem from parents' lack of familiarity with the modern-day college experience, either because the elders never attended themselves or because, like many parents of this year's crop of freshmen, they're immigrants to the United States and on uncertain ground culturally. The two also acknowledge that the campus, and the world, have changed since they were enrolled in the 1960s and '70s.

But things have changed on the homefront too.

Cal Parents director Diana Musto is an old hand at helping the parents of new freshmen adjust to life without Junior. (Deborah Stalford photo)

"We didn't have the term 'helicopter parents' when we were in school," explains Musto, recalling the days when Berkeley students put up with long lines just to find out what classes they'd gotten into each semester - a stark contrast to today's more regimented academic careers, which can begin with the fierce competition for spots in the best preschools. "Some students don't know what it means to make a mistake, to fail and then learn from it - when they get here, some don't know how to solve their own problems. They've never had to take responsibility for themselves because from the time they're 2, 4, or 14, or whatever it is, their parents are there making sure they don't make a mistake, that nothing goes wrong . or, if there is a problem, they try to fix it for them."

"A lot of parents," adds Layne, "have not allowed their children to make the choices that help them grow up."

These are the parents, both say, who want to spend all of Move-In weekend touring San Francisco with their kids, or who insist on their students coming home after their first week on campus. Or who, as the semester wears on, will demand to be told their kids' grades - which the campus will not reveal without the student's express approval - or why their calls have gone unanswered.

"It's very difficult for some parents to understand that they're not the ones who make the decisions for their student at this level, even though they've done it from the time they were born," explains Musto. "It's very hard for them to understand that we consider the student to be a legal adult and the legally responsible party. It's very hard for them to understand that we're not going to move their student [from a particular dorm] unless the student requests it."

And it's often hard for some parents to separate their own needs from those of their college-age kids. Layne recalls a Move-In Day a few years back, when a student, just installed in a dorm room, approached a Cal Parents volunteer.

"Can I ask a question?" he began.

Of course, he was told.

"Would you tell my parents to go home?"

"The kid was ready," Layne concludes. "It was the parents who couldn't let go."

That's where Musto and Layne come in. "We want parents to think of Berkeley as a loving, challenging place - challenging intellectually but caring emotionally - and we will help you," says Layne. "But you've got to help yourself, too."

Adds Musto: "You talk and you talk, and you do a lot of listening, and there's a lot of, 'No, mom, you're not gonna do that, not a good idea - I understand, I've been there.' For them to be able to hear 'I know what you're feeling, I went through the same thing'. It's empathizing, but at the same time you're trying to keep them on track for what's going to help their student. Because it's really not about what's going to help mom.

"In the end, if you ask them, 'Do you want your student to be happy and to succeed here?' the answer is yes. There's a little hesitation sometimes, but it is yes. They get it."

Musto hesitates herself for a brief second, striving to balance optimism with realism. "Most of them get it," she says.