After Super Storm Sandy canceled Family Weekend in 2012 it was a delight to merely have to bundle up to enjoy Family Weekend 2013. More than 400 people braved the cool to enjoy a day warm with hospitality and filled with activity. Saturday began with a bird walking tour and early risers were rewarded with many sightings and several songs. A nice contingent joined us for the Welcome, Keynote Address, and Q & A Session with President Lawrence, Dean Green, Dean Crandall, and Associate Dean Singh. President Lawrence spoke with great pride about the many accomplishments of our students and some of the exciting programs scheduled for this year. Janet Turnbull Irving, Chair of the Parents Advisory Council, delivered a wonderful address, which you can read below.
Following the morning session lunch was served under the tent. All of our appetites were whet for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday with delicious turkey and pumpkin ravioli. Feeding our souls while dining were performances by three of Sarah Lawrence’s acapella groups. Following lunch. families enjoyed panel presentations and faculty seminars. The latter highlighted a handful of incredible SLC faculty, as did the reception with President Lawrence and faculty dons, which closed the day’s formal activities.
On behalf of Parent Programs, we thank all of the families for attending this very special weekend and we hope that many of you will return next year and those unable to join us will do so in 2014. We also encourage you to come visit whenever your schedules allow. The Sarah Lawrence campus, which is home to your student, is a place we hope you will feel welcomed to come. Once here, please don’t forget to look us up!
As Karen [Lawrence] mentioned, I have been involved in book publishing for many years, but my volunteer life for the past eighteen years has been in education.
You could call me the ultimate helicopter parent, because I started a new school for my son when the local school didn’t provide us with the education we wanted; I ran that school board for 15 years and also joined the board of my son’s prep school. Now I am pleased to be leading the Sarah Lawrence Parents Advisory Council, which is meant to serve as a bridge between college parents and the administration and students. Our members meet twice a year to discuss ways we can enrich our children’s lives at Sarah Lawrence.
My son is now a senior here, and what I love about this college is its student-centered model of teaching that helps students apply their work to the world around them. At SLC students have almost twice the amount of one-on-one time with faculty than students at other colleges. Most classes are held in seminar formats, forcing dialogue and cooperative learning. Every week students meet with their dons who guide them into sometimes surprising directions that would not be possible in a majors-concentrated program.
For my son, this combination of intense personal interaction and freedom to explore has been miraculous. SLC has allowed him to be creative, to be vocal, and to participate in whatever direction he wants his education to go. It has forced him to work independently and think freely. This place has been the home-run we hoped for from the day he began his education.
My husband is going to speak in more detail about the uniqueness of a Sarah Lawrence education, but I have a few observations from my board experiences I would like to share with you, about how parents fit into their children’s education, and how we can best support them in college. I’m sure it is no surprise to any of you that the role of parents has changed significantly over the last thirty years, and most dramatically over the last fifteen. But nowhere has it changed more profoundly than in higher educational institutions.
You have all heard the term "helicopter parents," a cynical term for contemporary parents who are too invested in their children's success at schools, hovering above them and helping them avoid mistakes—a kind of super-advocacy role. In Canada they are called "curling parents" because they dash ahead of their kids sweeping the ice to make for a smoother ride. Studies have been done on the negative affects this has on children, everything from low self-esteem to depression and an inability to grow up, get organized, and take risks.
I read a story recently about a freshman student who successfully sued her parents for stalking her when she went off to college. Her parents insisted that she keep her Skype on all night, so they could be sure she came back to her dorm, sober and alone, and sometimes just so they could watch her sleep. They dropped in on her habitually although they lived in Kansas 600 miles away, and they installed monitoring software on her phone. Their defense in the suit was that they paid $60,000 a year for her education and boarding, and were therefore entitled to participate in it. The girl won the suit, her parents refused to continue to pay tuition, and the college supported her with a scholarship.
As a mother who has been involved in every one of my son’s schools, I have often been guilty of flying the helicopter too low, but I have also learned that there is a very positive role parents can play. Today colleges are dealing with phone calls and e-mails from parents of a kind that didn't exist ten or fifteen years ago. Calls about my kid's dorm room being too small, or concern when you haven't heard from them in three days. It takes a lot of human resources at a school to deal with this, and colleges are being forced to be increasingly distracted from the business of education, and more involved in public relations and consumer satisfaction—the consumer being the parents.
My take-away from eighteen years of serving on school boards, dealing with parents, is that as our kids grow up, the helicopter can start low—in elementary school we have parent-teacher conferences and frequent family events, parents are expected to be seen and heard often—but by college it is healthy for us to head for high altitude, not just for the sake of our children but for the health of the college as well.
The good news for me and my family is that Sarah Lawrence turned out to be the place where this could really happen. I know of no other college that places so much focus on independent study and creative thinking, all the while supporting its students with one-on-one instruction and guidance that directs them to be unique individuals in charge of their futures. It is pretty hard to fall between the cracks at Sarah Lawrence; there are a lot of demands on students to take charge of their own education, but there are a lot of professionals who don’t want to see their students fail. This is the place where it is safe for parents to let go; your kids are in extraordinary hands here.
I am honored to Chair the Parents Advisory Council because I believe parents can be the best advocates for their children when they are advocates for their educational institutions, and choose to partner with the school in ways that enrich it not just for their own child, but for all students. When we do this we are just practicing what we hope a great college like Sarah Lawrence will teach our children to do: to make a difference in the world, not just for themselves but for others.
Founding a school and chairing its board was the second most difficult thing I have done in my life. The hardest thing is what I have to do now: turn over the controls to my adult son. But Sarah Lawrence has given him incredible tools to live an independent and productive life, and he is ready to fly. I hope all of your families benefit as richly as my family has from an SLC education.