University students remain closely tied to their parents—emotionally and otherwise

Forty-four per cent of students surveyed said their relationship with a parent was the most important one in their lives. Stacy Lee Kong explores why that is and what’s changed over the decades.

Carson (right) and her mother, Kirsten Korchinsky, outside their Calgary home(Photograph by Leah Hennel)

Carson (right) and her mother, Kirsten
Korchinsky, outside their Calgary home(Photograph by Leah Hennel)

Kiley Carson, a fifth-year computer science student at the University of Calgary, says she and her mother have always been close. “I was the type of kid to tell my mom all the details of my high school relationships, even if she didn’t want to hear them,” she says. “My mom is the person that I tell everything to. The person that I would go to first when I have any sort of question that I need help finding a starting point for, when I need someone to proofread my work or help me clarify my thoughts, or when I need a second opinion on a project that I’m struggling to complete.”

That’s why, when Carson was completing Maclean’s annual student survey, she told us the most important relationship in her life was with a parent, though what “important” means is a bit hard to define. “I wouldn’t say I love my mom more than I love my brother or my sister—I love them all equally,” she says. “It might mean that her opinions and actions influence me more. Especially in the sense that she has had influence on my life for the longest period of time.”

Carson is far from the only one who feels this way: 44 per cent of students surveyed said their relationship with a parent was the most important one in their lives. (Romantic partners came in at 28 per cent, friends at 14 and siblings at 10; the remaining four per cent of students chose “other,” which included spouses, children and—for six respondents—their dog.

Experts aren’t surprised by these results. According to Sarah BraunerOtto, an associate professor in the department of sociology at McGill University and a social demographer who studies global family change, your most important relationships are not necessarily with those you spend the most time with, but with the people who shape your life. (That’s why it also makes sense that the second-most common answer is a romantic partner.)

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“These are young people, most of them probably haven’t established their own households yet, and they are probably still largely dependent on their parents for many things,” BraunerOtto says. “Parents are the first and primary social institution that children interact with. Yes, their peers become more important as they get older, but in terms of what shapes their world, and what institution is guiding them and is present in their lives, it’s their parents up until they leave their parental home and start their own.”

Still, it may be surprising to realize just how much influence Canadian parents have on their university-aged children when we consider the common stereotype of distant, if not downright tense, parent-teen relationships. According to Peter Lenco, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., these portrayals are based on a “white settler mythos from the ’60s and ’70s” that has little bearing on the economic, social and cultural realities of being a young person in 2020. “It’s part of a pop cultural myth that is still perpetuated in Canada,” says Lenco. He points to the way a student’s life might have unfolded six decades ago: “People were supposed to leave the nest, get their education and get a job—that was that ’60s story.”

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He also argues that there’s corporate interest in perpetuating that myth. Companies know they can use a “you don’t need anything from the outside to succeed, just big dreams and gumption” narrative to sell everything from gym memberships to laundry detergent, Lenco says—but the reality that is based on is long gone. “I’m not an economic determinist at all, but [the economy is] an important and under-discussed aspect [of young people’s dependence on their parents],” he says. “You could [always] draw a different upward trajectory based on your education, class, cultural background, immigration background, etc. But up until the early ’90s, life was much more straightforward for young people. There was far more opportunity in terms of education, in terms of not going into huge amounts of debt, in terms of being able to afford a house. Basically, people are much more financially dependent on their parents today.”

Consider the cost of tuition: according to Statistics Canada’s Tuition and Living Accommodation Costs (TLAC) survey of full-time students at Canadian degree-granting institutions, full-time Canadian undergraduate students in 1972 paid on average the equivalent of $534 in today’s dollars in tuition. By the 2019-20 school year, tuition had risen to $6,463, an increase of 1,110 per cent. So, unsurprisingly, students are borrowing more. According to the 2015 National Graduates Survey, the most recent year for which there is data, the number of students who had student debt at the time of graduation remained relatively stable between 2005 and 2015, but the number of students who owed $25,000 or more rose steadily, from 33 per cent in 2005 to 45 per cent in 2015. And students today are less likely to move out of the family home; according to Statistics Canada, the proportion of people in their 20s who live with their parents rose drastically between 1981 (26.9 per cent) and 2011 (42.3 per cent). This trend is apparent even in older young adults. In 2016, the proportion of those between the ages of 20 and 34 who were living with their parents was 42.1 per cent, up from 35 per cent in 2001. A 20.3 per cent increase occurred over the 15-year period.

Lenco believes those economic realities mean youth are more emotionally dependent on their families than youth in previous generations, when their futures were brighter—or at least easier. “There’s less room to [mess] up,” he says. “University is a huge investment, so people are much, much, much, much more focused. They’re going to be looking to their parents for advice on careers, on finances, on education. They need that network of experience to make a success of it because things are so precarious.”

Vedarth Vyas, a third-year computer science student at York University who lives at home, believes his living arrangements contribute to his family’s closeness. “I used to study geological engineering at the University of Waterloo, and I was living there on my own. That experience made me truly realize how not having parents around can affect you,” he says. “I could do chores by myself with no difficulties, but not having regular contact with [my parents] made me feel homesick and isolated.” Vyas eventually moved back to Toronto and transferred to York. “I felt much better being at home and being closer to my support system,” he says.

‘My mom is the person that I go to when I need someone to help me clarify my thoughts’ (Photograph by Leah Hennel)
‘My mom is the person that I go to when I need someone to help me clarify my thoughts’ (Photograph by Leah Hennel)

Some of the emotional dependence young people feel toward their parents stems from digital closeness, Lenco argues. “This generation grew up in constant contact with their parents on their phones, so that’s definitely going to have long-lasting effects on the relationship,” he says. “They’ve basically been tethered to their parents and in a lot of ways tracked by and accessible to their parents.” He also says that in previous generations, people left some of the responsibility for raising their children to their communities. In her 2019 book, Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, Jennifer Traig says that historically, children weren’t parented; they were reared. And a host of other people—wet nurses, tutors, clergy, older siblings and other relatives—did most of the work. “The practice of dumping the kids on someone else is called alloparenting, and it’s as old as people are,” she writes. Now, there is much less social integration; fewer families attend church, parents are less likely to join the PTA and few people today expect (or want) their neighbours to discipline their kids. Parents today are far more siloed than their own parents or grandparents were, and it’s not just about how much support is available—it’s also about feeling accountable for their children’s success. “In previous generations, at least among some groups, if your kids became flakes, it was just like, ‘Oh, well,’ ” says Lenco. But now parents feel obligated to “directly intervene in their children’s lives; when it comes to educational attainment or financial attainment or whatever, the course of your child’s life is not [the result of] chance or something in their character or institutions. Parents are responsible for their children’s futures.”

That attitude can have downsides for the children themselves. “I feel like my generation struggles with trying to make our own decisions and decide our own future because of our [economic] reliance on our parents and families,” says a second-year fine arts student at Simon Fraser University who uses they/them pronouns (and who declined to be named in this story). “It’s a natural thing to want to gain approval and acceptance from your parents, but many of us are choosing to go into areas that we don’t necessarily want to be in—and will be miserable in—because of this need. I’ve also seen and heard of many people changing their path at the last minute, right before they’re about to complete their degree, because they’ve realized it doesn’t make them happy.”

It’s also worth considering how culture might affect the way students prioritize their relationships. Harry Triandis, who was professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a pioneer of cross-cultural psychology, wrote extensively on collectivist and individualist cultures. His 1995 book, Individualism and Collectivism, explains that in collectivist cultures, which exist in many Asian countries, the group’s needs and goals are valued over the individual’s needs and desires; in individualist cultures like those in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany and Australia, the opposite is true.

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These differing priorities have an impact on family relationships. According to a 2008 study by New York University’s Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda, Niobe Way, Diane Hughes, Ronit Kahana Kalman, Erika Y. Niwa and Harvard’s Hirokazu Yoshikawa and published in the journal Social Development, “perhaps the most influential framework for conceptualizing cultural variation in parental beliefs and practices is the distinction scholars have made between ‘collectivism’ and ‘individualism.’ ” For example, parents from individualistic cultures tend to encourage “personal choice, intrinsic motivation, self-esteem and self-maximization,” while parents from collectivist cultures tend to encourage “connection to family, group harmony, and respect and obedience.” But not all people from collectivist or individualist cultures prioritize these respective values all the time; the study found that “parents shift in the goals they endorse for their children across situations (including immigration) and developmental periods. At the more macro level, economic and political changes in countries are reflected in shifting value systems of parents across generations.” But broadly speaking, where a student’s family comes from may influence the student’s attitude toward their parents.

For Vyas, the sense of responsibility goes both ways. “I am Indian, and we tend to live with our parents even as adults; the children are supposed to take care of their parents in their old age,” he says. “You are taught to always treat your parents with respect and always give them more time than any other relationship or task, such as friends or work. You can see this connection emphasized in Bollywood movies and other Indian media.”

Closeness is also a factor, though, and Vyas feels more connected to his parents than he did when he was younger. “As I grew older, I realized how I could be selfish sometimes in my demands. I also saw more clearly how much [my parents] sacrificed for me, and I appreciate them even more. My family emigrated here in 2008. My dad is a chemical engineer, but when we arrived in Canada, his degree was not very useful due to [engineering] certifications and other legislative reasons. He had to resort to working at local pizzerias, Walmart and other jobs well below his pay grade. My mother worked in factories and also took care of our family at home. My parents always took care of me and ensured there was food on the table. They never complained [even though they] went through many hardships to ensure I have a better future.”

The differences in collectivist and individualist approaches to family are real, but that’s not to say that some groups consider family more important than others; Brauner-Otto stresses that family is an important institution regardless of culture. “Certainly, in Canada and in the U.S., there’s much more of an expectation of leaving the nest and establishing your independence quite early on,” she says. “But the importance of parents for children is really universal. Family has been and continues to be of central importance to people across the world. It may look different, but it’s still the thing that shapes people.”

In fact, the picture may not always look as different as it does now. Lenco believes Canada is “reverting to global norms where people are much closer to their parents and are much more dependent on them, at least until they’re married or even beyond.”

Important relationships can still be fraught or difficult. The fine arts student at SFU says their relationship with their mother is the most important relationship in their life, but that doesn’t make it an easy one. “I think that ‘most important relationship’ means the relationships that have the most impact on your life, psychologically, emotionally and otherwise,” they say. “I haven’t always been close to my parents and, at this point in my life, I feel as though I am having a hard time making the transition from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ in their eyes.”

Students are often right in the middle of that transition, Brauner-Otto says, and “the relationships you’ve had [in the past] maintain their importance and salience in your life as you’re forming new relationships with people who will become increasingly important, and maybe more important, than your parents as you get older.”

But the economic, social and cultural reasons for students to prioritize their relationships with their parents aren’t going anywhere. In fact, COVID-19 is keeping many students at home who would be taking their first steps toward living independently this year. The pandemic has also upended the economy, so it’ll be harder for recent grads to find jobs and gain financial independence. Considering all this uncertainty, we won’t be surprised if parents feel even more pressure to intervene in their children’s lives—and if those kids end up placing an even higher value on their relationships with their parents.