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The College Years: A Parent's Survival Guide

Stay Involved in Your College Student's Life While Fostering Independence and Success Skills

By Pam M.
Courtesy of Associated Content

» You can keep up with happenings in your child's life through blogs, web sites and IMs.
» You can't call that "mean" professor yourself. But you can teach your child how to work with him.
» Encouraging independence will improve your child's chances of success and your relationship.

The diaper days are over and even prom night is a thing of the past. The bags are packed, the tuition bill paid, and your son or daughter has embarked on a new life as a college student.

College is a strange and tricky time for parents. Your child has ventured into adulthood, yet chances are that you're still footing the bill. Your mind tells you that the time has come to let your child begin making critical decisions on her own, but your heart still feels that mom or dad knows best. You can no longer enforce curfews during the week, but you can be pretty sure you'll get a surprise "I miss you, mom... and I need some help with laundry" visit at least once a month.

As someone who has worked in the areas of university advising and registration for over a decade, I've seen my share of excited students and nervous parents. I've watched hard-working parents foot the bill for several semesters only to end up fuming in frustration because when their son sleeps through all his classes and ends up on probation. I've had more than one student with dreams of pursing viable and exciting careers in one field collapse into tears in my office because dad won't help with tuition unless she pursues a computer degree she doesn't want. And I've seen the overwhelming joy on a parents' face when their son or daughter walks across the stage at graduation.

The college years are a time of holding on and letting go, of learning to see your child as a young adult and expecting him to act like one. They are a time where communication is more of a two-way street than ever. For parents, the college years are like walking a balance beam - one where you both want to steer your child in the right direction and let her takes steps that will impact the rest of her life.

There is no road map for this journey, but there are some helpful guideposts.

1. Let your Child's University Help Keep You Involved.

Each summer, my office runs a series of orientation programs for new students and their parents. The day is filled with programs discussing living on campus, financial aid, and academics. At one point, each student has a private session with an academic advisor during which they register for their first semester of coursework.

While this session occurs, parents are provided with a variety of other discussions and activities to choose from. Inevitably, a parent will express anger that he or she cannot sit in on the advising session.

Colleges and universities are well aware that parent involvement can be a critical factor in student success. We also know that as the ones usually footing at least part of the bill, parents have a vested interest in what courses their child will be taking. At the same time, it is critical that college students learn early on to ask questions, use resources and form relationships with their advisors and other professionals on campus on their own. We strive to create an environment where parents can be involved, but students are also prepared to seek information and work with others independently.

After all, as a parent you won't be sitting in your daughter's classes or mediating dorm room disputes over who left the bathroom a pig sty. In fact, you might be hundreds of miles away during that mid-term exam.

Colleges strive to create an environment that keeps parents involved while encouraging students to act independently. Many offer parent programs, networking services, and online information geared towards keeping mothers and fathers in the loop about what's going on around campus. Find and take advantage of these resources, while letting your child do his own explorations.

2. Understand College Confidentiality and Records Disclosure Practices.

Each semester, my office fields a barrage of calls from parents inquiring about student grades. We also field a litany of complaints and insults when we cannot release this information over the phone.

Colleges are required to protect student academic information, and to not release private information. The reason for this is simple: to protect our students. When a counselor or advisor is unable to give you information on the phone, she's not being difficult or ignoring the principles of customer service. She's simply adhering to legal requirements and protecting the rights of your son or daughter.

While you may not be able to get the information you want with a phone call, university professionals should provide you with resources to stay involved in your child's academics. Many university advising and counseling offices will make appointments for parents to come in with their child to review and discuss grades. Because this isn't always easy or even possible if your child is attending college out of state, transcripts can also be provided by mail at your student's request. In addition, more and more universities are moving towards a system where students can set up online accounts which allow parents access to academic and financial information.

3. Help Your Child Plan a Bright Future. Don't Plan it For Her.

When I first began my career as a university professional, I had a father and daughter walk into my office. He opened his briefcase and pulled out our school's catalog and a notebook where he'd mapped out four years worth of course schedules.

"Look at this," he said, "and tell me that if she does this she'll be able to have her biology degree by May 2000."

The schedules he'd planned were detailed, right down to the time of day she'd be sitting in Cell Biology in the spring of 1999. I was stunned. Since it was 1997, I wouldn't know what time the biology department would be holding their 1999 spring courses for at least another year and a half. Either he was clairvoyant, had access to inside information, or had expectations that were a bit out of line.

We spent the next hour discussing possibilities and mapping out potential academic calendars. I talked. The father took notes and gave input. The daughter sat staring out at the hallway, watching other students walk by with a wistful expression on her face. When one of us asked her a question, she responded with a listless smile, a shrug, or the occasional "okay, whatever."

She was back in my office three months later, in tears because she was struggling with her biology courses and didn't even want to crawl out of her dorm room bed in the morning. As it turned out, she wanted to be an English major. But Dad was convinced that she'd never get a decent-paying job with that particular degree, so he'd pushed her into the sciences even though she had no interest in them.

It is natural for parents to have visions of what their children will be when they grow up. A family of doctors hopes their son will follow in their footsteps. A teacher who loves her trade wants her daughter to experience it for herself. A woman who was well on her way to being a lawyer before she dropped out of school to raise her family hopes one of her children will live the dream she gave up.

Of course, parents also want financial stability for their children. Hearing your child say he wants to be a writer might conjure up images of him working a night job to pay the bills and spending his days eating lukewarm ramen soup and typing away in a run-down apartment. The fact that doing so would make him happier than getting that accounting job you have in mind won't keep your fear of him struggling and living in poverty at bay.

The role of a college professional in situations like these is to help students and their parents explore options and understand the middle ground. It is the role of a parent to offer advice, but also to listen to what their child is saying about his own hopes for the future. It is the responsibility of both the college professional and the parent to create an environment where a student feels he can speak openly and freely.

I was too young and new to my field to see what was going on in the situation described above. If I had been able to read the signs in the father's detailed planning and the daughter's disinterested behavior, I would have dug deeper. I could have provided the father with some encouragement about the variety of career possibilities for liberal arts graduates. I could have put him and his daughter in touch with our alumni association to learn about what hundreds of successful English graduates were doing with their lives.

Dream about your child's future, but make sure your dreams aren't overshadowing hers.

4. Familiarize Yourself with Your Child's Program of Study.

You're used to your son coming home every day and doing his homework in your family study. You always knew when that big chemistry test was coming up or when that social studies paper was due.

Today's college students are more likely than ever to discuss academics with their parents. They've grown up in a culture that encourages parental involvement and are used to mom and dad being a part of their lives at school. Their peers often have involved parents as well, so gone is the fear of the 18-year-old that he'll be seen as a "momma's boy" if he talks about a school project to the family back at home. Cell phones and the internet make communication instantaneous and easy. The college parents of twenty years ago could expect a phone call every two weeks when their daughter ran out of spending money. Some moms today get daily text messages.

Still, if your son or daughter goes away to college, you can feel more disconnected than ever. You haven't met all his new friends. You don't get a parent-teacher conference with her psychology professor.

Learning about your child's major and the courses she's taking can help you feel involved and connected. Get a copy of the school's catalog, or simply look it up online. Read about the major program and review the course descriptions. Some professors even put their detailed course outlines and syllabi online. You'll know what your child is up against academically. Who knows, maybe that lit class she's taking will spark your own interest in rereading a classic, and you can discuss characters and plots together.

5. Have Realistic Expectations.

Your daughter was always a straight-A student in high school. Your son had the highest SAT scores in your community. Everything in your child's record points to success.

Then the first semester's grades come out. Maybe there's a set of straight A's on the transcript that arrives in the mail. But then again, maybe there are a few B's and C's littering the record as well. Maybe there's even a D.

Many students struggle with making the transition from high school to college. This can be particularly difficult for students who were "superstars" in their high school careers. They've gone from being big fish in small ponds to being minnows in a huge ocean.

The study skills that led to stellar performances in high school need a bit of tweaking in the college environment. Building relationships with professors who teach in lecture halls filled with 200 students is much more difficult than chatting with a high school guidance counselor, teacher or coach. No one's taking attendance, and the temptation to skip that 8 a.m. lab one too many times was overwhelming.

Sometimes a first college grade report can be disheartening, and make a student second-guess his abilities. That loss of confidence is only compounded if the message from home is one of disappointment and frustration.

Of course you'll want to discuss grades, and how to improve them, with your child. But focus on things that will help the next time around instead of setting standards or expectations that will make your child feel like a failure and lose confidence. Encourage your child to talk to professors and advisors, to take a course in developing study habits, to participate in study groups or use campus tutoring services. Show excitement about those areas where your child is doing well, and praise improvements.

6. Encourage Involvement.

Studies show that students who get involved in life on campus are more likely to succeed academically and stay in school through graduation. A connection to the community around them inspires more interest in learning, and gives them an awareness of the resources available to them when they're struggling.

Encourage your son or daughter to explore and get involved in clubs and organizations that involve them in their interests. If your daughter tells you she's part of the student government association, the intramural field hockey team, the campus newspaper, the Young Democrats Club, the weekend hiking group, the cooking club and a sorority, you should probably ask her when she plans to go to class and study. But if she's just joined a sports club and is writing for the campus paper, then encourage her in these endeavors. She's putting out feelers and trying to find her niche on campus, while allowing plenty of time for academics.

If your child needs to work part-time while in college, encourage him to explore an on-campus job. Sometimes spending money is critical, but it shouldn't come at the expense of study time. Campus jobs don't require transportation or much commute time, offer flexible schedules, and often come with supervisors who can serve as academic mentors.

7. Foster Independence

Cutting the cord is hard. But it is one of the best things you'll do for your college student.

When your son calls complaining about a professor's unfair grading policies or how he can't check out books from the campus library until he pays a parking fine, you're going to want to hang up, dial the university's administrative offices, and get to the root of the problem. Perhaps you're even going to want to give them an earful. In some cases, you might even be justified.

But before you step in, make sure your child has already exhausted the appropriate avenues himself. Has he talked to the professor or his advisor about his grade? Has he inquired with campus police about ways to appeal a ticket he doesn't think he deserves?

When college is over and your son goes to work, you won't be able to call his boss and tell him you don't think it's fair that he didn't get that dollar raise but the guy in the next cube - the one who plays video games all day - just got promoted. Your child will be much better able to handle life's administrative headaches and real or perceived injustices if he knows how to write his own letters of complaint, make his own phone calls, and hold his own discussions with service providers and authority figures.

I once had a parent call me screaming because her daughter was dropped from her spring semester's courses. The daughter lived on campus, and the mother was a few hundred miles away. When I looked into our records I realized that the student had filled out an online withdrawal request. She'd been confused and thought this was what she had to do to drop just one course, and ended up asking us to cancel her whole course load instead. But she hadn't wanted to admit to her mom that she'd wanted to drop the one course, so she hadn't given her the whole story. If the student had just come to my office, I could have told her that all she needed to do to correct the mistake was work with us to re-add her classes.

Encourage your son or daughter to resolve problems independently, and offer advice for dealing with administrative systems and customer service representatives. As frustrating as those things can be, they're one of the life lessons we should all learn early on.

8. Make Home a Happy Place - For All of You.

Just when you start getting used to not having your child in the house, the semester ends and she comes home for summer break, or the Thanksgiving holiday. When she left, she was used to calling you whenever she'd be home later than 11 pm. But after several months of dorm living, she's out of the habit, and you spend every night worrying while she's out reconnecting with her high school friends.

Discuss and set ground rules for home visits. Explain that a quick cell phone call isn't about you being a watchdog or wanting to know exactly what she's doing. You just want to know she's safe so you can get some sleep. If you want to be the doting mother and do her laundry, go for it. But don't feel bad about reminding her that she does these things herself while she's at school, so there's no reason she should assume mom is her personal maid when she's home.

Make sure there's a quiet place for your child to study in your home, just in case she wants to use the break to catch up on some reading or prepare for next semester's tough course load. Encourage her to invite home that roommate or friend who doesn't have a way home for the holidays, so that you can get to know the new people in her life.

9. Say "I Love You" With A Care Package

You can make your child feel loved and take the edge off any homesickness with simple gifts from home. Of course, non-perishable food is always a welcome break from greasy dorm fare. But there are many other things that can make your child feel connected to home and prepared to take on the world:

    • Personal letters or cards, written by hand instead of sent in an email
    • A subscription to a local newspaper
    • Gift certificates to the campus bookstore or to movie theaters or local eateries near the college
    • Supplies of notebooks and writing utensils
    • Laundry detergent and cleaning supplies
    • A favorite stuffed animal that was left in her bedroom at your house
    • Extra minutes on a phone card or family calling plan
    • An album full of photos of family, friends and beloved pets

10. Get Connected.

If you haven't jumped into the world of internet socializing, now is the time to get your feet wet.

Today's college students do everything online. They communicate with friends and family through email, instant messages, blogs, and sites like MySpace. You'll hear from your son much more if he can IM you while he's working on that paper. You can learn what other students think of your daughter's college by reading reviews and comments on MySpace and similar sites. Chances are, the university itself will do much of its communication online, through web portals, alert systems, blogs and emails.

11. Watch Out for Credit Cards.

Credit card companies see college students as prime customers. Your son or daughter may not have a bank account or a job, but I can almost guarantee that there's a company out there that will recruit him or her to accept a credit line based on "good student standing."

Having a credit card can be a lifesaver for students in financial emergencies such as travel delays. Having a reasonable credit line can also teach valuable budgeting skills. But having several lines of credit or getting into the habit of using credit cards to keep up with the latest college fashions or technological toys can lead students into a financial quagmire.

Talk to your child about spending habits, finance charges, and the dangers of overtaxing a credit card. Consider a joint account that you can share with your student.

College is a time of exploration and adventure, both for students and parents. By involving yourself without being overbearing, participating in the online communication common to young adults today, learning about your child's campus and academic program, and encouraging honest discussions, involvement and independence, you can help your son or daughter embark on the road to adulthood. Just as importantly, you can build the foundations of a parent/adult child relationship that will blossom and thrive throughout the years.

This article was reprinted with permission from Associated Content, The People's Media Company. Visit today to publish your own content and explore AC's growing multimedia library.

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