Have we so helicopter-parented our kids that Uni feels hard for them?

The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (November 12th 2023)

Or is it a lifetime spent on screens and Covid? And come and join me and June Sarpong at the Saatchi Gallery on November 26th. Details below

Dear Queenagers

Hope you’ve all had a good week! I’ve been back in the pond after swimming in the warm Spanish sea. It’s down at nine degrees again; I can’t do it without neoprene gloves – but this morning the frisson of the cold in the intense sunshine, the sky bright blue, four cormorants sitting companionably on rings drying their huge black wings in the sun and the heron looking on from the corner – it was blissful.

On the way there I bumped into an old school-gate mate. She and I used to chat every day during drop off, now our meetings are more pond-based and sporadic, but I still love her. There is still that immediate sense of recognition, of familiarity. of – ‘oh, it’s you! My friend! And Relax.’ Her two sons are the same age as my girls. They are both off at uni too. “The little one’s back” she said. (He’s not that little, he’s a strapping 18 year old.)  “I don’t know why he came back, he hasn’t really got anything he’s got to be here for, I think he just wanted to collapse, have some home comforts. I caught him standing in front of the full fridge this morning, grinning madly!”

It’s a familiar story. Every Queenager mother I’ve talked to this week has her supposedly at-uni offspring back home. I know there have been ‘reading weeks’ (hmm not much reading, more raving…) but home seems to exert a strong pull for this cohort of youngsters. Some are back because of heartbreak. Oh my God, why does no-one warn you about dealing with the angst of grown-up children? Their despair and anguish when first love goes wrong, how powerless you are to cheer them up – the sad little voice on the end of the phone hundreds of miles away. That sense of desperately wanting to fix it for them and knowing there is nothing you can do (except maybe send some heartbreak funds for a warming Deliveroo, or extra chocolate, or a tray of brownies through the post). What is that old maxim, that we are only ever as happy as our least happy child….

But there seems to be something bigger going on here than just the normal ups and downs of youth. The whole student experience seems to be hard-yards for this generation. Maybe we’ve coddled them too much as parents; maybe we really our those dreaded ‘helicopter’ mums and dads, who hover and dive in to fix and solve whenever things get tough. Or even worse, maybe we are ‘sweeper’ parents – like the fluffers in Curling who use their brooms to make the ice slippery and friction-free. Parents obsessed by getting all obstacles out of the way of our little darlings so they never suffer or experience hardship… so there is no friction, just plain sailing. Though of course that is impossible.

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It certainly seems that having to go and live far away, in a strange flat, where they have to make friends with strangers, buy their own food, cook their own meals, get their own lemsips and make them if they are sick, is proving tough for many Gen Zs. I have particularly heard in the last few days about how tough they are finding living amongst strangers. My old school gate mate said her son had said he just wanted to come home and collapse and not have to make an effort or small talk. Another said her daughter found it exhausting ‘being on all the time’. I wonder whether the pandemic spent largely at home with family, or only being able to see only a small group of very close friends has made normal University mixing and befriending harder for these kids. There is plenty of evidence that Gen Z are the most anxious generation on record (and their mental health issues are real, not just over-diagnosed, I’ve seen it in all the teens who have used my house as a sixth form common room for the past four years). Or maybe it’s that they are more used to conducting their relationships through screens – endlessly winking and photographing themselves and sending the pics and an emoji or a text, rather than speaking to or being with a real human being. One GenZ told me she has a dread of awkwardness, or people she doesn’t know well, of striking up random conversations, finding something in common… Strikes me they are finding the ‘In Real Life’ nature of university, certainly the bit where they have to turn strangers into friends, a lot tougher than we did. I wonder why.

Or maybe it’s that the whole nature of the uni game has changed? They certainly seem to work a lot harder than we did. Maybe that’s because they are paying £12k a year in tuition fees… the drumbeat of what to do afterwards also seems to start much earlier. Social media is also to blame here – they’ve been fed on a diet of uni as one endless party, clubbing, fun, a kind of Friends meets Gossip Girl but with cheap Wetherspoons pints and drug dealers who hand out business cards and even engraved bottle openers (that is true, I’ve seen one!). Of course student life can be all of that, but it is also slogging out to the supermarket in the rain to get milk or baked beans, pulling an all-nighter to finish the essay, getting dumped by the person you love and moving through friends till you find your forever-gang. Maybe they have higher expectations than we did, or are less resilient not so accustomed to having to navigate difficult times before it gets good. Again I wonder whether a youth saturated by idealised Instagram influencers and glossy TV, often lived through a screen, has really set them up for the reality of life. And then again, it all sounds more complicated now.

I had supper last week with two of my very oldest Queenager uni mates. We walked back to my car afterwards, arm in arm, laughing about something we did nearly 35 years ago at college. My friend hugged me: “Feels like yesterday” she said. And it does. The vividness of those early adult days, the headiness of the freedom, of running your own life, just you and your mates, no parental restrictions the long afternoons lying around in each other’s rooms listening to music and giggling. Parties and high jinx. It’s funny how the spirit of those times endure – we’ve all had kids and marriages and jobs – but our student days still glow vivid, timeless, ever-present. Glory days… But maybe memory plays tricks. Of course there were afternoons when I lurked in my bedroom, rainy sundays where the only sustenance was the kebab van and everything felt gloomy. But those aren’t the bits I remember, that I talk about.

So maybe it’s our fault, after all. Maybe our 1990s summer of love generation has so glorified our own uni days, the friends we made, the fun we had, the parties, the good times, that it can never measure up for our kids. Maybe, as with most things when it comes to parenting, it really is all our fault…. Or maybe it’s just different, now. Harder. The world is more complicated.. Another pal said her son was gutted because the girlfriend he was besotted with has left him… for another girl. It’s all much more fluid these days. Dating has different rules. In our days there was an expectation that if you were sleeping with someone they weren’t sleeping with anyone else. These days unless you’ve had a: ‘we’re exclusive’ conversation, then multiple simultaneous shagging is entirely within the rules. Ouch!

What has come out of all of these conversations and what I am definitely feeling, is just a big sense of adjustment. Loving our kids, but having to step back. Wanting to help but realising our capacity to do so is rightly limited. Worrying but feeling helpless. Maybe that’s the parental role for the next twenty years or so until they need some hands-on grandparenting.. I give much thanks for purpose and work and friendship and carving out a new Queenager life. We have to keep moving forward, embrace the new stages – not get stuck in the past. But as always that is a process, a work in progress.

On another tack completely, I went to my first Christmas party last week. A swanky do at Tate Britain thrown by Roland Rudd, a king pin who links the worlds of politics, business and media together. The CEOs and politicians were so keen to get in they were queuing down the steps of the Tate at the 6.45pm start! There was quite the buzz around Rachel Reeves, Labour Shadow Chancellor… I’ve been talking publicly a lot recently about the continued lack of women in leadership; how Queenagers entered the professions in equal numbers to men in the early 90s but thirty years on only 14% of top executive roles are held by women (a number which has been static for the last nine years) on current progress, it will take another 136 years to reach gender parity at the top.

In fact, this party was like a living exemplar of how the top jobs in UK PLC are still held by a particular kind of once-chiselled-jawed, now slightly-jowly, charming grey-haired chap – the Tate was full of them. Queenagers? Not so many. In fact the whole gathering was overwhelmingly male, pale and stale except for my corner of the room where I had a lovely time hanging out with broadcaster Jude Sarpong, an old pal, and a bunch of her artist friends whose work she has just curated at the Saatchi Gallery in the Kings Road. Actually, we had such a jolly time we decided to do an In Conversation together in the gallery to mark the end of the exhibition Filling in the Pieces in Black on November 26th.  June says of it: “It’s been a real labour of love. As a woman whose heritage hails from the African diaspora, I feel there is so much about the rich tapestry that makes up the black experience that has been either omitted, distorted or invalidated. My aim in curating this show was to present a more balanced picture of the many strands of the indelible soul of Black people.”

So come and join us in Chelsea at noon on November 26th,  – June and I will be chatting about all things Queenager, her exhibition and giving all of you a chance to come along and make some new friends, see some great pictures and give yourselves a treat. Here is the Eventbrite link.

Have a great week and see you then!



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