Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Helicopter Parents

This piece on the BBC website is about increasing parental involvement in the lives of their children at university. Apparently universities and UCAS are now allowed to deal with parents directly rather than the students. I can understand parents wanting to be invovled, and coming to open days, but the idea of them actually coming to interviews - or even lectures - seems horrifying.

My comment was posted:
"I can understand parents coming with their children to open days and helping them makes choices - after all, not only is university a big choice, but many are still at school at the time and for many a lift with their parents may be the easiest way of getting to the university.

The idea that parents can be present at interviews and so forth seems to go a bit far, however. As for those that say they can't get information from their children - the answer is not to hand over a blank cheque. Make it plain that your financial support is conditional upon your involvement.
Ben Saunders, Oxford"

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At 7:55 am, Blogger danbutt said...

I'm a bit unsure about this bit:

"the answer is not to hand over a blank cheque. Make it plain that your financial support is conditional upon your involvement."

In the absence of state funding, I think affluent parents have pretty much a straightforward moral obligation to support the education of their children. I think that children are entitled to that, so it's pretty much a blank cheque as far as I'm concerned. (I guess I'm thinking of primarily of undergraduate education here, but possibly further also, in some cases.) There may well typically be reciprocal duties on children in such cases, but I don't think they're the type of duties the non-fulfillment of which would entitle parents to withdraw financial support. That's a hell of a thing to have hanging over you.

At 9:26 am, Blogger Ben said...

You have a point to some extent, although I suppose it's a matter of how much involvement vs how much money.

My comment was largely in response to someone saying "In the case of my step-daughter, the only way we could find out what course she was on, what her accommodation arrangements were etc was by dealing directly with the University. And why? Because she refused to discuss any of the details with her mother at all - she simply expected a blank cheque to be signed to cover her costs - accommodation, living expenses, etc whilst totally cutting her Mother and I out of everything else - including her results."

I don't think students should expect parents to pay for everything and not involve them at all (even to the extent of telling them decisions/results). If they want to say to parents 'it's none of your business' then they can't expect parents to pay for it all. (Though, of course, parents should give some money no questions asked - I'm not suggesting they pry through every detail of their children's expenditure).

At 3:32 pm, Blogger The Brooks Blog said...

This is an interesting development. I agree that students shouldn't expect a blank cheque and that, if they want cash for accommodation, they are expected to be honest. But this is between students and their parents. I would continue to refuse discuss students with parents for fear of violating data protection laws.

At 6:01 pm, Blogger danbutt said...

I certainly agree with Thom that as academics we shouldn't discuss students with parents. (The only times I've ever had parents trying to get involved against my wishes have been when the parents are themselves academics!) There are certainly times when I've thought it would be in a student's interest for me to get in touch with their parents, for various reasons, but I think it's generally right that we can't do that.

Anyway, I just wanted to say a bit more in support of the blank cheque argument. In my view, affluent parents generally have an unconditional obligation to support the education of their children when the state refuses to do so. I think this is most clearly the case in circumstances when a failure to pay for the education (whether in terms of fees or support) would mean the child is unable to pursue the education in question. The cases I really have in mind are those where the government mean-tests support for students on the basis of parental income, but where although able to pay, parents refuse to do so. (I'm a bit unclear on how this all works in the UK. I think a student can declare herself independent of her parents and thus not have their income included in a means-testing assessment, but only if the student actually is independent and so, for example, lives apart for her parents, which I think is overly onerous on the student. I'd prefer an unconditional legal obligation on parents to pay. Although, obviously, I'd also prefer an egalitarian redistribution of resources and state funding for higher education!) I don't think a parent should be able to withhold this payment, in such circumstances, for any reason if they are comfortably able to pay, and certainly not because the student does not wish to tell the parent her grade breakdown.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that children won't typically face moral duties to reciprocate for the parents' payment in various kinds of ways, and I suppose keeping them in the informational loop *might* be such a reciprocal duty. I see this pretty much in terms of Dworkin's account of associative obligations. If your parents generally treat you well and confer certain benefits upon you (as, let's be clear, everyone agrees they are morally obliged to do when the children in question are under, say, 16) then certainly I believe you acquire certain obligations to them. We could argue about the content of these obligations, although I could certainly imagine that they could be fulfilled in other ways than by sharing particular details of one's adult life that one preferred to keep private. But I'd also want to maintain that there are various ways in which parents could treat their children badly which would result in the parents having the unconditional duty to pay for their higher education and the children having absolutely no reciprocal obligations of any kind. Imagine a wealthy single widower who abuses his children. Does he possess an unconditional obligation to pay for their higher education? You bet. Do they owe him diddly squat in return? Absolutely not.

At 8:58 pm, Blogger Ben said...

I guess there are some background assumptions here. I'm assuming the child (really an adult now, remember) is saying something like 'none of your business, stay out of my life'.

Now, while they shouldn't have to cut their parents off completely to get some privacy, it is feasible that they can do so and stand on their own feet - through their loan and part-time job earnings (or maybe even hooking up with a partner, etc) - so I don't think we should assume that they can't look after themselves.

I'm interested in how unconditional you think the responsibility is. Would it apply even to a child who'd delayed university until their mid-20s or 30s? And can the duty not be nullified if the child's actions seem to break the relation, either in general or in this particular respect?


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