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Dec. 14, 2011

Vol. 112, No. 5


Tiger parenting

Lisa Belkin ’82 reflects on freshman move-in day, where parents must say farewell (or not)

By Lisa Belkin ’82
Published in the December 14, 2011, issue

John Ueland; Photos: Courtesy Lisa Belkin ’82 (Center); Beverly Schaefer (Tiger Mascot); Various Stock

The line winds around Baker Rink on this somewhat steamy September morning, and outside it feels much like a ­carnival. There are tubs of orange and black candies for the taking, along with Prince­ton key rings and striped water bottles. Someone in a tiger suit wanders about, posing for photos with the members of the Class of 2015, who are queuing with their families, waiting to check in.

“Are you drinking enough water in that thing?” one parent asks the tiger, who does, indeed, look warm.

“You’re not his mother,” her own daughter teases.

“Even tigers need their mothers,” she answers, then quickly slips on her very dark sunglasses.

John Ueland

A bit closer to the entrance, Peck Ferg is wearing her darkest lenses, too. Andrew Ferg ’15 is her only child, and she’s been crying for two nights already in anticipation of this day. “When they are little, they have the separation anxiety,” she says. “Now, I have it. I know it’s good for him. But at the same time, I know I’m going to miss him.”

Andrew gives her a buck-up kind of a hug.

The entrance to the building marks a before-and-after moment, the families know. The heat of the day would give way to the cool of the Baker Rink ice; the students would get their welcome packets and start off on this next chapter.

It has been 33 years since I played the student in this annual tableau. Now I am back to write about how freshman move-in has changed, through the eyes of a ­parent.

After all, it is the parents who are most different decades later. True, there are changes in the process: Everything is far more organized than I remember, with signs on the buildings and large rolling orange carts to help ferry mountains of stuff from car to dorm. There are changes in technology — huge stereo speakers have given way to huge flat screens. But the biggest change is the roles of Mom and Dad. A drama in which they once had bit parts now has become much about them.

“In my generation, you went to college to spend time away from your parents and make decisions [and] live your life without checking in more than once a week, if that,” says Robert K. Durkee ’69, who has spent virtually his entire career at Princeton and is now the University’s vice president and secretary. “For this generation, it is much more like their parents have come to college with them, and both the students and the parents seem to enjoy the opportunity to share the experience.”

Technology is one of the main motors of this shift, says Kathleen Deignan, Princeton’s dean of undergraduate students. That weekly call has been replaced with an ongoing conversation that can continue all day across a variety of devices. Parents know details of their child’s college life and “sometimes also face the temptation to manage that experience,” Deignan says, “especially when it comes to handling adversity or making difficult decisions.” That’s regrettable, she adds, because “there is a great deal of learning that goes on when students sort through these issues themselves and learn to draw on their own values, instincts, and resources.”

Parents even can follow children much further afield than Princeton. Nancy Kanach, director of the Office of International Programs, recalls one or two parents who went along with their children when they headed for a semester of study abroad “to check it out.” (No, the parents did not stay for the whole semester.) The involvement of parents is “a big topic in the field of study abroad,” she says. “Many worry that this means that the immersion aspect of study abroad gets undermined.”

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1 Response to Tiger parenting

Katharine Swibold s'82 Says:

2011-12-12 17:14:48

What a great article, Lisa! Absolutely nails it, not surprisingly. Our daughter is at Smith, my alma mater, and it is so true about it being my place still, but now it is also her place. Some stuff is the same, but so much is different, and it is fun seeing it through her eyes. I love that she loves it ... but in her way! Anyway, thanks for this.
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