Parents Should Give College-Age Kids Some Room

This week with New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen, one listener wonders what to do about her son, who lied to her about his academic misadventures.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. By the time your kids go off to college, they're pretty much adults. They don't bring home their report cards for you to sign anymore. You just have to trust that they're doing their best.

One of our listeners found out the hard way that isn't always the case, and she wrote this week's letter to New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen. The listener, Lynn, asked that we not use her last name. She's on the line with us now. Hello there, Lynn.

LYNN (Caller): Hi.

ELLIOTT: And Randy Cohen is with us from New York. Hi, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist, New York Times): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So, Lynn, you discovered your son was not being entirely honest with you about his grades.

LYNN: Yes, absolutely, and it was very uncharacteristic of him because as a high school student he was always, you know, right on target, a very high-achieving student, and we really had no reason not to trust him. And about two years ago, he started his, you know, college career at a small public college with a good reputation. And we attended a parent orientation, and they made it very clear that the school is not going to contact us if your child is in academic trouble, if your child is arrested, and even if your child is sick. They will encourage your child to contact you, but unfortunately, our child did not.

He basically lied about his grades and said he was passing, and he did fail two classes his first sophomore semester and two classes his second sophomore semester. And we had no idea.

ELLIOTT: You know, when the school first told you about its policy before he started college, did you have a conversation with him then? Okay, school's not going to be letting us know about your progress, but we expect you to let us know.

LYNN: Exactly, and we had that conversation. And the school said, oh, we don't want you to be a helicopter parent, and we don't want you to micromanage your son or daughter. And I fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. and I said, yes, he's an adult now, he's independent, we could trust him. We always have trusted him.

ELLIOTT: Now, are you paying for his tuition or were you?

LYNN: Yes, yes, we are.

ELLIOTT: Couldn't you just say, hey, look, I am paying for this. You're showing me your grades every semester.

LYNN: Oh, now we can, absolutely, absolutely. That's, you know, that's the policy now, and - but I just feel like these kids are left alone in college, they're treated like adults, and then when something does happen, there isn't enough intervention on the school's part to help these kids.

ELLIOTT: Randy, what is the obligation of the college at this point to intervene and try to get parents or other people around the student to help?

Mr. COHEN: The college has just that obligation, I believe. But I should also say my daughter just began her sophomore year in college this fall, and I, too, was surprised to learn last year that I can't simply demand to see her grades. The school is bound by something called FERPA. That's the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, signed into law by President Ford, by the way, in 1974. So this law's been around for a long time.

And the college indeed is acting ethically when, under the dictates of this law, it treats students like adults, that college isn't elementary school. We've had 18 years, we parents, to cultivate the habits of personal integrity with our children. And in the end, what would we do if we did know their grades? We can't go to their dorms each night and stand over them and make sure they study. We can't drag them out of bed in the morning and take them to class. They really are adults.

But the college then has, I think, as Lynn was suggesting, an ethical obligation to every student it accepts to make sure they're getting a good education and that they are getting any help if they need it, and they're getting that help promptly.

I spoke to the dean at Lynn's son college, and I found the dean to be a delightful and responsible person, and who shares our view that the school has an ethical obligation to each student in this way. And it sounds as if this student may have slipped through the cracks. But the school's policy at least is to do just what I think they should be doing as an ethical matter, and Lynn as a parent thinks they should be doing.

ELLIOTT: But how do the parents fit into that picture?

Mr. COHEN: Well, it's our job to make sure our children trust us and trust us enough to let us know what their grades are. We have no right to force them to do that. And it's interesting that you mentioned tuition, because that was my first instinct too. Hey, I'm paying for this thing. Don't I have the right for a report about how you're doing?

ELLIOTT: Exactly.

Mr. COHEN: No, you don't, and neither do I. No parent does. It's a bit of a shock to find that out freshman year. We really don't.

ELLIOTT: If I'm paying, I can say, look, I'm going to see your grades every semester. If you're not up to par, I'm not paying anymore.

Mr. COHEN: You...

ELLIOTT: I have the right to do that.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I'm not sure what you mean by right. You don't have the legal right to say that to the school. In my view you don't have the moral right to bully your kids in that way, that they're not property, we don't own them. It's not because you pay the bills that you have special moral rights. It's because you're a parent who loves you children, who cares about your children. They trust you and love you and you want to help them. But that's a reciprocal obligation that love gives us that parents and children have to one another. Money doesn't really come into it.

ELLIOTT: So Lynn what is your policy now with your son in regard to grades? Does he just have to tell you how he's doing or do you make him show you...

LYNN: No, he has to show us his grades, absolutely. And I think he's back on track. I hope he is. And he's a good kid.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you for your letter, Lynn, and good luck.

LYNN: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Randy Cohen never got anything less than A's. And if you'd like him to help you out, write to us. Go to our Web site, npr.org, click on Contact Us and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Please put the word ethics in the subject line and include a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, I expect to see a copy of your grades.

Mr. COHEN: Thanks so much for having me on.

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