On any given day, sociology professor Barbara Mitchell and her 22-year-old daughter, who lives at home while attending university, will trade multiple text messages. They may be “just checking in” with each other, says Mitchell, or confirming one another’s safe arrival someplace, arranging care for the family pets or sharing humorous bits of information. “We’re very, very close. And she encourages me to text her,” says Mitchell, who teaches at Simon Fraser University. “I remember when I first got my smartphone, I was texting her a couple of times a day, and I didn’t want to come across like I’m this controlling mother who has to be in her life all the time. And she was like, ‘No, text me more!’ I was so surprised. I think it gives [kids] a sense of security.”
Mitchell’s concern is understandable; moms have long had a reputation for hovering over their children—the very word “mothering” is synonymous with “keeping tabs on.” But as Mitchell’s story shows, the parent-child paradigm is shifting, with many kids in their late teens and 20s now actively engaging in, and even initiating, frequent contact with their folks about everything from new recipes and music to relationship and academic problems. It’s a phenomenon Barbara Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, has coined “the digital tether.” The term came to her while observing many students on their cellphones: “I was eavesdropping on these conversations and realizing that they weren’t just talking to their friends, they were talking to their parents—on the way to class, on the way to the gym, [as] they’d walk out of the dorm,” she recalls. “And texting has just added an additional layer of conversation.”
The realization prompted Hofer, along with Abigail Sullivan Moore, to write The iConnected Parent: Staying Connected to Your College Kids (And Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up. They looked at the reasons behind this trend, and what it has meant for children’s development of autonomy and parents’ ability to relinquish control over their kids. Among their findings: In 2013, between cellphone calls, emails and texts, college- and university-aged kids were in touch with their moms and dads, on average, 22 times a week—up from 13 times a week in 2007, when texting wasn’t popular. This, despite the fact that just before leaving home for post-secondary school, the majority of students believed they’d talk to their parents just once a week, says Hofer.
Hofer’s research also revealed a disturbing, albeit predictable, consequence: Those students who contacted their parents the most were also “the least autonomous and the least self-regulating.” She learned of mothers and fathers calling to wake up their kids on exam day or to remind them of upcoming deadlines; and of students who enlisted their parents to resolve romantic troubles or conflicts with professors. “Because the cellphone made things so immediate, the kid who used to call home on Sunday night and might not even remember to say, ‘Oh, I got a C last Monday on the test in calculus,’ can now walk out of class, call home and bitch about [his or her] professor,” says Hofer. “And then the parents think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to solve this. I think I’ll call the professor.’ ”
The immediacy of cellphones isn’t the only explanation for this new reality, however. Hofer says the “elongation of active parenting of adult children”—because kids are taking longer to live on their own, finish school, establish their careers, get married—“has transformed the kinds of emotional bonds that parents have with their children.” Adds Mitchell, “For a lot of young people, now the transition to adulthood is fraught with so much uncertainty and they really look to their parents to be able to provide a stabilizing force,” she says. “Parents realize that children are growing up in a different time and they require more years of nurturing and caregiving than what their parents [offered].”
There is another difference at play between this generation and previous ones: This is among the first cohort of mothers, fathers and kids who have a lot in common and actually really like each other, says Jon Gould, professor of justice, law and society at American University in Washington. “Parents now can have more peer-like relationships with their adult children . . . There’s a stronger convergence in values and tastes . . . That’s partly why children are feeling more comfortable coming to their parents with problems,” he says. “The generation gap has shrunk, because they live more similar cultural lives today, so they understand each other better.”
But, warns Gould, author of How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying): A Professor’s Guide to Mastering What’s Expected, “having that relationship with your kid is great until you go over the line. And the moment you [do], it’s bad for everybody—the kids are not learning how to grow up and take responsibility, and the parents are not learning how to live on [their] own.” And really, isn’t that the point?