The rise and rise of the school-run is a familiar story. In the 60s and 70s my own virtuous generation used to get ourselves to school on foot, by bus or bike. Now the kids get driven there in the 4 by 4, Ford Fiesta or whatever. Whatever the reasons (parental anxiety about murderous traffic and/or wandering paedophiles), the results are obvious in the shape of pollution and overweight/underexercised kids. Not to mention the fact that the average 10 year-old has lost the only half hour or so of independence that they used to enjoy during the day.
What people don’t realise is that the same phenomenon extends to universities too. When I was a student we used to go from home to college by train or bus, sending our assorted possessions in a large trunk – dozens of which you would see piled up at the Porters’ Lodge. (There was a British Rail service, I seem to remember, called “Passenger Luggage in Advance”, which I don’t imagine exists any longer.)
Now, most of them seem to get brought and picked up by their doting or long-suffering parents, in cars stuffed to the gills with clutter (and I confess that, wearing my parental hat, I do this too). Part of the reason may be practical. When we came home at Christmas and Easter, we used to stuff our things in cupboard and hop on the train. Certainly at Cambridge many colleges, with an eye on conference business, insist that the undergraduates – unless they can prove that they really do live on the other side of the planet – remove all their possessions every vacation.
But it’s not just practical (after all, there’s still the trunk option). Mums and Dads seem to appear much more often around college than their traditional single epiphany at graduation.
They bring the kids to open days, and sometimes assume that they too will sit in on the talks and the meetings with the staff. They turn up with them at interview – even waiting for little Johnny or Suzy outside the interview room and probably trying to catch some signs of how it is all going (loud laughter .. is that good?).
Many colleges have given up trying to discourage this by frosty glances – and have taken to providing parents' facilities, coffee etc, just to get them out of the kids’ way.
So what’s all this infantilization about? I’m tempted to think that it’s related to the other – quite opposite – trend we’re witnessing. If you’re a parent, it’s actually hard to have dealings with any institution on your child’s behalf once he or she gets to be 16 or 18. In college, we are told very firmly not to talk to any parent about their daughter’s progress. Which means that when an anxious Mum calls, distraught that her daughter is struggling and unhappy, and when a few words from me would be kind and reassuring (she’s doing very well – was she perhaps hungover?), I am supposed to say pompously that I am not able to discuss the girl with anyone but her.
An even madder version of this happened to me a few years ago. My daughter, aged 17, was sleeping off a very late party – when I knew that she had a doctor’s appointment booked for sometime during the day. Should I wake her up, or let her sleep? Well, obviously it depended when the appointment was. So I rang the doctor’s surgery. The nice receptionist explained that she was not allowed to divulge the time of the appointment. So these two middle-aged women tip-toed around the issue for several minutes (“so you don’t think I would be foolish to et her sleep now”) until I could infer that she was booked in for late afternoon.
Maybe parents have taken to being taxis because they’ve been squeezed out elsewhere.