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Why don't you call your mother?

Maureen Lipman as Beattie in the 1980s advert and a man on a phone

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Tony Blair has no idea what his children are up to, says his wife Cherie, because they don't call him. Yet as university term begins, and thousands of teenagers cut the apron strings, the pressure to phone home seems to be greater than ever.

"Some children talk to their parents," huffed Maureen Lipman's excruciating grandmother at her middle aged son Melvin in the 1980s BT adverts as she threatened to come to his office and bring him a jumper and a sandwich.

There's a thousand other representations in movies and sitcoms of the adult-child being encouraged by their parents - sometimes with menace - to ring home more often.

Frankly, they don't call their dad
Cherie Blair

In the November issue of Vanity Fair you can find an extraordinary insight into 21st Century Western parental relationships with adult children, in an interview with Cherie Blair.

The wife of the former prime minister, one of the country's most prominent QCs, and now an author, is organising the fixing of a flood in her 24-year-old son Euan's new flat. He is away on business in Japan.

The writer of the piece observes: "Cherie is trying to sort out the mess while calming Euan with soothing maternal noises, like a mother bird cooing to her distressed fledgling by long-distance telephone."

Not so many moons ago a key indicator of a successful entry to adulthood was leaving home, finding economic and social independence and not having to rely on your parents for anything.

Crumpled messages

But today there is a generational shift and it is best demonstrated by the expectation that adult children will regularly call their parents. It's an expectation that can finally be met by the arrival of the mobile telephone.

Twenty, and perhaps even 10, years ago, if your child toddled off to university, contact was not easy. Long queues at payphones in halls provided the perfect excuse for the fresher's calls to only be sporadic. The anxious parents could leave messages, but crumpled scraps of paper could easily flutter down corridors before being read.

The Blair family leaving Downing Street
Mrs Blair is heavily involved in her children's lives

"If we compare it to even five years ago," says Martina Klett-Davies, a research fellow at the Family and Parenting Institute, "kids didn't necessarily have a mobile phone. Because of the internet and Skype there's a lot more contact between people than there's ever been before. Not so long ago you only had letters."

And the fact that the parent knows the child can be easily contacted, creates an expectation of more regular contact.

"You need to be available on your phone a great deal. Whether you consider that to be surveillance or mum showing her love depends on the individual student."

But as the Blair example shows, many now consider it strange if the adult children are not now in regular contact. "Frankly, they don't call their dad," Mrs Blair reveals.

'Digital leash'

Of course, while university, with the increased parental financial contribution , might be considered an extension of childhood, the working years of the 20s and 30s seem a bit of stretch.

Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, calls the mobile "the digital leash".

My mother-in-law was a duty sort - you had to visit every Sunday, the children had to phone her Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays
Claire Rayner

"With the invention of the digital leash you have a situation where parents feel they need to be in day-to-day contact with them.

"Parenting has become a job for life rather than something that you end when the kids leave home. These days because parents have lived through their children for so long they find it hard to let go. The boundaries have become ill-defined."

Typically ringing his parents' home once every two weeks, 21-year-old student Alec Williams is one of the less frequent callers among his peers.

"Sometimes it will be longer. I sort of phone them to check. My mum will call me if she hasn't heard from me for a while… she is a bit of a worrier. Sometimes I ring because of money reasons, practical problems, sometimes I ring just to let her know what's going on."

Busy lives

It's important to avoid rules on calls from adult children, says agony aunt Claire Rayner.

"There can be absolutely no rules about it. Different people have different lives. I've three adult children - my daughter rings me virtually every day. I've two boys - one rings me less frequently but it doesn't matter. A phone has two ends, I can phone them.

Tony Blair on the phone
'Euan? Euan? Are you there?'

"The most terrible thing you can do in family life is to make hard and fast rules. Your offspring are leading busy, packed career based lives. My mother-in-law was a duty sort. You had to visit every Sunday, the children had to phone her Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays."

It is important for parents to realise when to let go, says Dame Jane Roberts, chairwoman of Parenting UK, whose only son is about to go to university.

"I used to ring home once a week but we didn't have mobile phones in those days. It is a big deal for parents - the empty nest. But parenthood is all about letting go - right from the earliest time from when they become a separate being."

And there are some who think that the frequent phone calls and continued parenting in a child's 20s are related to the trend for "helicopter parenting" of teenagers. In this model, the parents hover constantly over children in circumstances which traditionally would see the child pushing out on their own.

Flabbergasted bosses

Universities in the UK now invite parents to open days and they are often involved in the selection process.

"I'm also a lecturer at the London School of Economics and there are parents who come in with their children," says Ms Klett-Davies. "Parents consider themselves their children's contemporary or friend or guardian or a mentor. Maybe it reflects the increasing pressures and competition."

In the US, there are even cases where flabbergasted bosses have had to talk to the parents of mollycoddled twentysomethings, says parenting expert Jim Fay, of the Love and Logic company.

"It's got out of hand - 'the world's longest umbilical cord'. They say 'here talk to my mother, she will straighten this out'.

"Parents are more confused about their role than ever before in history. As a result the kids are growing up not prepared for the rigours of living in a modern society."

At the root of it is the issue of parent-adult child telephone contact. Of course, there are plenty of people who would say that speaking to your twenty or thirtysomething child a few times a week is just an indication of how getting started in life has become harder.

If children need help with deposits for houses and with bills, and can no longer aspire to a job for life, perhaps it is understandable why they want to touch base so often.

And as parents get older the relationship of care and responsibility is steadily reversed. Many older parents need to hear from their children. A recent survey by Help the Aged found one in five adults do not contact their older fathers at all.

In a society where families are flung far and wide, there are increasing numbers of parents suffering social isolation.

Perhaps you really should ring your parents tonight.


Send us your comments using the form below.

Parents aren't supposed to be your friends, they're supposed to be your Parents. Ringing just enough to re-assure them that you're not dead a few times a month is enough. As the article says, the phone works both ways.
Mike, Southfields, SW London

I'm an Aussie living here in the UK and I talk regularly with my parents and grandparents via Skype, email and Facebook. All I can say to parents wanting to stay in touch is - get in touch with the digital age... especially if you have kids at home as well, if your child adds you as a friend on Facebook or MySpace you actually have a better idea of what they're up to and who their friends are.
Kate, Liverpool

What's wrong with talking to your parents just because you like talking to them? I either call my mother or she calls me pretty much every day. We don't want anything material or have an agenda, we just like to talk to each other. If either of us are too busy to talk it's just a quick Hi-Bye but other than that, most days we have a quick catch up.
Melanie, Somerset

If parents want to chat, they know where we are and have our telephone numbers. Why do we have to phone them, it is just as easy for them to call us. I don't know what all the fuss is about. It certainly doesn't bother me if they don't call.
Chris Wren, Nottingham

Twenty and 30 years ago, we were expected to stay in regular contact by writing letters. Telephoning was saved for emergencies.
Carolyn Young, California

It's complicated when you don't want or need a helicopter parent, but they hover around anyway. My mother, bless her heart, lives at the other side of the Atlantic ocean - and if it wasn't for the price of calls, she'd be ringing me every single day just to check if I'm eating (I'm married, working and just fine, thank you very much.) Needless to say, if someone dares to introduce Skype to her, I'm toast!
Anne, Norwich

I made sure my Mum and Dad knew how to use MSN Messenger before I came away to Uni. Going away from home is a big deal for me, and it's reassuring that they're just a phone call or e-mail away.
Sophie, Birmingham

Reading this article makes me even more grateful for the family I have. I am a 30 year old with a successful career, a partner and an independent life. However I speak to my parents at least twice a week - often more. And it's not to ask for money or advise. On the whole, it's just for a chat and a catch up. I never feel obliged to call... I just want to.
Gemma Harris, London, UK

I'm on the side of the parents here; they spend much of their lives, time, money and resources looking after their offspring but then never hear from them once they fly the nest. Children should respect what their parents have done for them and ring occasionally at least. You only get one set of parents! Love them because once they're gone, they can't be replaced.
Aicha , Camden

I talk to my parents every week, and see them most weeks, my husband's parents are lucky to see him once a year and he rarely calls them. I like Claire Rayners statement "a phone has two ends".
Tracey, Surrey

My phone calls to the folks became massively improved since they invested in a second phone - I still spend the same amount of time on the phone to them but rather than repeating the bare bones of what I have done that week we have much more fun conversations. And I talk to my Dad equally as much as, if not more than, my Mum. Mind you we all go on holiday together still as well (four generations last year) and have done all through our teens and twenties and now into thirties. Perhaps we're a bit weird.
Sally, London

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