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Opinion Hail to mothers, even those who can’t let go of their college-age kids


Can I get something on the record? I love moms. I really love moms. A caring mother provides the best chance, sometimes the only chance, a young person has of turning into a responsible, self-reliant, high-character adult. No mission is nobler.

However. Ahem. Even moms are subject to that fundamental caveat of life: “up to a point.” Working daily with and on behalf of tens of thousands of other people’s children, as I do as the president of Purdue University, one encounters mothers who, let’s just say, carry things a little far.

Like the one who insisted, without ever providing any documentation, that her child was allergic to all nonorganic food. She ordered food multiple times a week, accompanied by specially selected spices, and had it delivered to our dining courts with a demand that the staff cook it separately for him, to her specs. (They did, for a year, until the demands, or maybe the “allergies,” ceased.)

Or the mom who wrote and called eight times to complain about her daughter’s accommodations. She was sure there was mold (the test she ordered came back negative) and that the water was tainted (she sent it out for tests — negative again). The oven handle was loose. (Has the college student tried using a screwdriver?)

My school often receives helpful advice about adding streetlights or other measures to enhance physical security — on a campus found every year to be one of the safest in the nation. After the university acceded to one mother’s demands and moved her daughter to different housing, she continued to complain on behalf of other people’s children who apparently hadn’t realized the extent of their own jeopardy.

Of course, many of the grievances are justified, and we try to act on them promptly. But after years on the receiving end of such entreaties, I find that the term “helicopter parent” no longer seems adequate to capture the closeness of the hovering. “Mom mowers” might be more descriptive.

This is not to exonerate the fathers. Although paternal complaints make up a much smaller fraction of the campus mailbag, they can be just as difficult. One father was the source of 13 emails and three phone calls about how miserably lonely his son was, insisting he be moved to a different residence. When visited, the student reported having lots of friends, several extracurricular involvements and zero interest in being moved.

Such parent-student disconnects are not uncommon. One mother was persistent and belligerent because her son’s bed was too short for his 6-foot-3-inch frame. When visited to see if the university could make a different accommodation for him, he picked up his cellphone, called home and bluntly asked Mom to butt out.

As extreme as such examples are, it is impossible not to empathize with parents who, rationally or not, worry about the physical safety or comfort of their child. More dubious are parents’ attempts to shield their offspring from failure or the academic challenges that higher education, if it’s doing its job, presents to its young clients.

Like the mother who insisted that we gather all her son’s homework assignments daily and fax them to her so that they could work on them together every evening. Or the one who requested an “advance interview” for herself the day before her daughter’s own interview regarding a possible academic award, so that she could “explain her daughter’s qualifications” for the honor in question.

Or, a personal favorite, the mom who impersonated her son — yes, son — at his teaching assistant’s virtual office hours, to present his homework solution and push for a 100 percent grade. Even with the Zoom camera off, the TA detected the subterfuge.

Years ago, when my wife and I took the eldest of our four daughters to start college, the arrival day’s welcome program ended abruptly midafternoon. Parents and kids had attended separate orientation sessions at lunchtime, and when we saw our daughter again it was for only five minutes, before the adults were politely excused. The message was clear: A new era has begun for your child, and that means for you, too.

In a country where so many social sadnesses are the consequence of irresponsible, neglectful parenting, one cannot fault those who love their children to the point of overprotection. But protection from challenge — and from the occasional failure that is often the best teacher — can be endangerment of a different kind.

So, bless all the moms, and dads, including those who go a little over the edge. We’ll do our best to be responsive. But remember: When your kid graduated from high school, maybe it was time for you to graduate, too.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.