Spinoff production intern Alice Webb-Liddall (third from left) and friends getting ready for the Uni Ball (supplied)

Emily Writes: How terrified should I be about my kids going away to university?

Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes unloads her anxiety about her children who are nowhere near university age one day maybe going to university onto Spinoff staffers, genuine millennials, and recent students Alex Braae and Alice Webb-Liddall.

Hi Alex and Alice!

Thanks for agreeing to let me grill you. Basically I’ve been waking up at 2am in a cold sweat thinking about my child going to university even though he’s only FIVE and the other one is only three and quite frankly does not seem like the university type if you know what I mean.

I didn’t really go to university because I didn’t want to and I don’t like to work hard. I somehow managed to get my post-grad in journalism without a degree through a healthy dose of harassment of Massey University lecturers. But since it was only one year, I feel like it doesn’t count.

On Friday night I somehow ended up having a drink at the Salient offices in Wellington with the two Tobys and I saw a young boy – literally a baby, probably only 20 years old – stumbling up a hill carrying two bags of Doritos. He could barely walk and he had fallen over and blood was seeping through his knee into his tan Dickies pants.

I had a few thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Oh no he’s out by himself
  • Is he going to get back to his house OK
  • Has he called his mother
  • Two bags of Doritos isn’t enough for dinner
  • I hope he doesn’t drink more
  • He probably won’t soak those pants and they’re going to get ruined

I repeatedly asked him if he was OK and he looked at me like I was a weird old lady. Which I suppose at 12 years older than him, at least, I probably was.

What if it was my son wandering alone around campus, drunk, with a sore knee? These are the things I think about at night for no reason. So thank you for indulging my ridiculous anxiety and answering these questions I have for you.

Please reassure me and other mothers like me that university isn’t an orgy of drunkenness and drugs. What was your university experience like?

Alex Braae – I went to uni twice. The first time around, I started around age 20 and was a mess as a person. The second time around was last year. I was 27, working way too much on the side, and didn’t really have the time to party. There were some thoroughly excellent people on my course last year, but it was a hanging out with friends group, rather than a partying group. I’d like to offer something profound about the differences between those two periods – like a uni experience is really all about the stage of life you’re at – but the reality is probably that I just got really boring in the intervening years.

Alice Webb-Liddall – Drugs and alcohol exist. Initiations exist. Stupid people and peer pressure exist. They always will. I was exposed to all of these things multiple times. But as scary as this may sound to parents of uni-bound small people, I don’t think the descriptions that we so often hear in the news  are the majority of experiences. For every group of kids who made dumb choices there were multiple groups who were sensible.

Especially for kids going straight from high school to university, I think there is a lot of focus on trying new things. I genuinely think that a person in this stage of their life is so much more inclined to make dumb decisions on a whim, but uni kids take care of each other. We’re all tired, we all skip lectures the morning after student night in town to sleep in till midday – we’re in the same boat and that means we all look out for each other. My uni experience was about making friends, burning pizzas, midnight McDonalds drive-thrus and fostering passion for the career I’m now a part of. I did drink alcohol, I did party, and I did kiss my fair share of people, but the decisions were mine and I had a support group who looked out for me every step of the way.

In Australia they have released a report stating some kids were forced to drink booze off each other’s knobs. Can you please tell me this didn’t happen at your university?

Alex – Hazing, clubs, and enforced ‘fun’ like this were never been part of my uni experience. The American Pie-style aspects of university probably get overstated (and often embellished in the re-telling) because they make for scandalous yarns. And those who feel pressured to take part in those sort of activities should know: the sort of douchebags who force that kind of thing are really just a loud but tiny minority of students. There are a lot of other types of people out there.

Alice – Nope. Ew. WTF. There are always rumours but I haven’t heard of or seen this happen anywhere. The worst we had was a group of kids who had to drink a Diesel through a straw while holding a plank.

Students partying at the famous Hyde St Party during Otago University’s O Week (Photo: Sam Brownie)

What is O Week and is this something I need to be anxious about?

Alice – For the most part, O Week is about university clubs and youth political parties setting up marquees on campus and trying to get you to sign up to various things you’ll probably never have time to attend. As peer pressure goes, I think Young NZ First was the only group that I felt that from during O Week. There are parties organised by the universities, cool events, nice campus tours, and generally a lot of free sausage sizzles. O Week gets a bad name but universities try their hardest to make it pleasant and safe. All of the official events have security and Red Frogs and lots of people around to help out. The people who bend the rules get made to leave. O Week is about making a bunch of scared kids get together, have fun, and make connections before they get to the grind of study.

Are Red Frogs a drug? IS THAT CODE FOR DRUGS?

Alice – Red Frogs is an organisation that combats drugs and excessive alcohol use. They have a cool history in Australia during their version of O Week. Awesome people, not there to stop fun, just to be a safe space with water and lollies –  red frogs were a type of lolly they handed out at the beginning of the organisation.

Alex – I suppose in terms of parental anxiety: stupid behaviour is going to happen regardless of what’s going on with a kid in their late teens. Whether it’s uni, or working, or travelling, or NEETing. O Week just formalises and confines a lot of that stupid behaviour in one place. It’s probably safer than what they could be getting up to.

Oh god what is NEETing it sounds terrifying.

Alex – It’s a verb that probably isn’t a real word for people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training.

Well OK then. How can parents support their kids at university? 

Alex – Support their curiosity. Academic reading is dry, and enthusiasm about ideas will keep them going through it. For a while after starting uni, they’ll also be super basic. So if your kid comes home in the holidays talking about libertarianism, that’s okay – it’s probably just that their most interesting recent lecture was about it. Talk to your kids, foster and challenge their ideas, and they’ll grow as people. And also grow away from libertarianism.

Alice – The best thing my dad told me before I left for uni was that no matter what situation I ended up in I could call him. I had a few friends who made bad decisions over my time at uni and ringing in their ears would be their parents saying ‘don’t go to any parties that seem dodgy, don’t do drugs, don’t go anywhere alone, don’t, don’t, don’t’ and while I understand that as a parent you’ll want to know that your kids are being their safest selves, I also found this made a few of my peers afraid to confide in their parents when things did go wrong. Teach your kids that these things are wrong, but send them off with the knowledge that they can talk to you. Mistakes do happen and bad decisions do get made, and while uni kids hold their heads high with newfound independence,  there are times when they just need to call Mum and know things will be fine.

Now you don’t have to tell me and everyone who reads the Spinoff Parents but please – hypothetically, have you been to any naked university parties and hypothetically what is the age where parents are not allowed to be in attendance at these parties?

Alex – I have not. See above re me being boring. And, should a parent ever be at that sort of thing? Buzzkill.

But I’m a cool mum Alex.

Alice?

Alice – Naked university parties? Never even heard of them if I’m honest. I’ve been to normal parties where a group of 50-somethings showed up uninvited but they were a super good time and nobody minded at all. I think telling your kid there’s a chance you’ll show up naked to a party is a surefire way of making sure they won’t go…

Dunedin’s Hyde Street Party. Photography © 2012 Sam Clark – Critic Te Arohi

What is the culture of university like? Do you all look after each other I mean for the sake of your mothers?

Alex – I can only comment on Victoria in Wellington and AUT in Auckland, rather than the real uni towns like Dunedin and Palmerston North. From what I could tell, uni life and culture didn’t really exist as a thing outside of just generally being young in a particular city. Sometimes you’d meet good people, sometimes you’d meet shit people. Being at university had very little to do with which group they’d fall into.

Alice – Everyone looks after everyone else. In my experience I didn’t once feel as though I had nobody to talk to, and I went through some really shit personal stuff at uni. Living in a halls set up the base of my friend group that developed and grew and still surrounds me now. There were moments where I would bottle up an emotion for weeks and one day get home to find a chocolate bar and a post-it note on my desk saying to ‘hang in there’ or ‘we’re here for you, Al’. We all miss home, so we become each other’s families.

Is it acceptable for mothers to attend O Week to chaperone their children is that a thing I can do?

Alice – Hey, I think it’s cool. I think helping to set up the new tiny, dark room in the inevitably overpriced halls of residence, going for a Kmart trip to buy a new sheet set and candle and one of those Polaroid hangers and going on the campus tour are all things that help with the transition. I was basically dropped off and left alone in Christchurch within about four hours. That’s a whole new island. My flatmates didn’t even move in till a week later. I think there is also time where your baby needs to take a few adult steps alone though. Maybe meet a few of their friends, get introduced to their roommate or across-the-hall neighbor and get their phone number so you can keep tabs without crampin’ their newfound ‘style’.

Alex – Noooooooo no no fuck no. Absolutely not. Are you kidding? Don’t you have your own stuff to be doing? Do you not realise you’re living in a golden age of television? In the nicest possible way, get a life. You have way better things to do with your evening than watch your kids dance badly to terrible music.

I hope I have better things to do but it seems unlikely given my social life at 32. Do you think that by university age children have pissed off their parents so much that their parents are just over it and they’re off going on cruises and buying the full drinks package and like rediscovering their sexuality and joining apps like Silver Rooters Tinder or something like who cares if my kid is fucking up his pant knees they’re his pant knees? DO YOU THINK THAT HAPPENS? Or am I going to be in a constant swirling crisis my whole life about my children being out in the world?

Alice – I think that happens to a degree. Your kid will grow up and start making their own money and buying their own things and they’ll learn the value of things and how to handle money and how to balance work and study and social life and proper sleep and there will be (in my experience) a LONG time while this is all being figured out when your kid will neglect one or multiple of these things. Again, let them know you’re there for help, don’t tell them how much harder you had it, but also remind them that people do it every day and they can too. I’ll be honest, a lot of my motivation in university came from knowing I wasn’t the dumbest person to have ever taken the course, and if they could pass, then surely I could too.

Alex – Just try and live your best life. Hope for the best rather than fearing the worst for your kid. Most people turn out fine, even people who stumble around wasted with bags of Doritos.

When was the last time you told your mother you love her because she worries about you.

Alex – I’m pretty sure my folks have stopped worrying about me, but I reckon they’ll be around long enough to see my upcoming mid-life crisis, so let’s wait and see.

Alice – Yesterday. I know. She’s fine. I want her to know she can pick up the phone whenever she wants to talk to me. I miss her more.

It’s fine I’m fine.

Alex – Your kids will be fine too.

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