Remember, it's not about you

Why are parents hijacking their children’s experiences to put themselves at the centre? It’s not healthy, writes Barbara Ellen for The Observer.

As a fresh contingent of British children gears up for university, who should we be most concerned for - them or their parents?

I ask because sending a child off to university seems to have morphed from an exciting rite of passage (for the child) into some dark, angst-ridden melodrama starring the parents.

How do they feel about it? Are their hearts broken? Will they cope?

This is usually accompanied by emotional accounts of parents staring forlornly into their child's empty bedroom, perhaps weeping on to a favourite toy from childhood, or bravely talking about taking up new challenges to "fill the void''.

What emerges is a sense almost of competitive empty nest syndrome. "I'm sad about my child leaving for university.'' "I'm even sadder.'' "I'm practically suicidal.'' And on it goes. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the most bereft of us all?

It's not all parents and in any case people are entitled to be emotional about their children leaving home. It's a huge deal. But whose huge deal? Parents should be careful that this doesn't turn into an unseemly hijacking of a moment that by rights belongs to the child.

You hear about parents sobbing as they drop children off - not exactly a positive start to the university experience. Other parents rather overdo helping children "settle in'', practically getting in professional decorators for their dorm rooms, embarking on huge food shops (guilty, I did this), taking them out for lunch, then dinner ...

How to put this politely - parents, eff off. The time when new students arrive is hugely important - for them to mingle with their peers, not sit in a restaurant with you.

A university professor has commented on "needy'' British students demanding feedback and pleading "special circumstances'', much more than the Mexican students he's also taught.

Some of this might relate to the exorbitant cost of university these days, but perhaps "needy'' student culture extends to hyper-needy parents too, with Mum and Dad emerging as the true, perma-melting snowflakes.

For some years now, there's been a strange generational blurring, where children can't even go to rock festivals without their parents shouting "cooee!'' from the next yurt.

It's usually nice, parents being friends with their children, but, occasionally, things whiff more than a little of parental narcissism, where everything that happens to their child becomes more about them, and how they're feeling about it.

Parents must resist inserting themselves into the central narrative of their child's every experience - accept that parental marginalisation, even outright irrelevance, at the university stage is not only inevitable, but it's healthy and crucial for the child's independence.

The good news is that, if your child is going off to university, or to do anything else positive, you did it, you launched them - miraculously everything is going to plan.

Time to send up a quiet hallelujah to the parenting gods and toast yourselves with a celebratory glass of wine. - Guardian News and Media


Add a Comment