Phone Home

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was an allegory for students going into college. An alien left behind in a new place, still adjusting and homesick, tries to “phone home.” I see you, Spielberg. I know the feeling. When I first got to college, I was that kid who paced up and down the hallway in the dorms and filled my parents in on my day, sometimes several times a day. Meanwhile, my new friends, while respectful, were quizzical. Often, they’d point out how cute it was that I was so close to my family, which is true. But, I’d also been trained from a young age by my divorced, immigrant parents to call them daily, whether it was to say good morning to my traditional Italian dad or let my concerned Cuban mom know I’d gotten home from school. Old habits stick, I guess. My friends’ comments made me wonder though: Did they not communicate with their family that often? Was it my peers’ way of gaining independence? Was it a result of culture or differing parenting styles? I set off to find out.

And in fact, many of these factors do play a role in communication between families, according to Miami-based psychologist Dr. Sherrie Lewis-Thomas. On a family member’s part, “I think cultural issues play a large role in the frequency of communication, as does gender and family dynamics,” she says. In my case, my Hispanic mother, who is usually occupied with work, still prioritizes her children above everything else and always goes out of her way to check in on me and make sure I didn’t procrastinate again (“Sorry to disappoint you, Mami but…” “Don’t you know stress kills!). Students with similar backgrounds probably feel this strongly. There is also the factor of how close a family is, or what sort of precedent they have established in how frequently communication will occur.

Unlike the year E.T. was released1982when college students still had to use a landline in order to get in touch with their families and email didn’t even exist, let alone all the social media and other technologies we use to communicate nowadays, we have all that and more. “Digital media is also playing a key role in more frequent communication as it is now so easy to communicate and can take less than ten seconds,” says Lewis-Thomas.

After conducting a survey answered by college students, I found that nearly half of those who participated responded that they communicated with their families daily. The rest of the responders said they either got in touch multiples times a day, weekly, or two to three times a month. The most common means of communication was text messaging, followed by phone calls and then video calls.

Fellow students’ comments were also enlightening. Those who called daily said they did so because their parent was their best friend or that a close-knit family important to their culture, very similar to what Lewis-Thomas asserted. Meanwhile, others favored calling their siblings or cousins who they were closer in age with every day, and getting in touch with their parents once a week “for logistics.” This is actually quite common according to Lewis-Thomas who says, “Many students reach out to their parents for money or help.” Other students said they did not communicate as often because they did not get along with their parents. Some said their parents were their best friends. Lewis-Thomas emphasizes that calling is a way for students who are still adjusting to receive support from their families and feel connected.

Gender also seems to influence the frequency of communication between students and their families. “Culturally speaking, one can often hear a parent say they have a daughter so they get calls all the time, but their sonsthey feel lucky if they talk to them once a week,” says Lewis-Thomas.

I’m nearly done with my second year of college, and I admit that I still like to call my parents everyday. Make of that what you will, but I just want to make sure that they’re okay just as much as I’m sure they want to make sure I’m not waking up at noon every day (I don’t-I wake up at 11:30. Ha!) Now, my dad wants me to FaceTime him once a day though and I really don’t know how to feel about that. I think I’ll just stick to “phoning home.”

Photo Credit: Emme Harris and Taylor Roberts