New College Parents: It’s Time to Let Go, Here’s How

Incoming college freshmen can’t wait to get on campus, meet new friends and get their first taste of independent living. Their parents, however, might be feeling a little apprehensive, still wanting to be involved and to play an active role in their student’s college life.

Helicopter parents,” which refer to parents who hover and get overly-involved in their children’s lives, are blamed for indecisive and overly-dependent students. Experts agree that parents should still play a role in their college students’ lives, but it’s how they execute their role that is key to creating mature, independent kids.

Parents need to let their kids grow and establish themselves in college, advises Lisa Kaenzig, first-year associate dean at William Smith College in Geneva, NY.  She assures parents that colleges are taking an active role in shaping students’ lives and keeping them on track, and even calls herself an “air traffic controller” as she tells parents when to land and guide their kid.

More than 90% of colleges offer advisory programming services for parents of incoming freshmen, and 31% of colleges have a parent office on campus, according to the National Orientation Directors Association. Through these services, colleges are working to partner with parents to ensure student success through promoting independent problem-solving and decision-making with the help of on-campus resources, says NODA’s Executive Director Joyce Holl.

A parent’s role isn’t over when college starts—the focus now shifts to being more of coach rather than day-to-day life manager.

It’s incumbent upon the institution “to connect the dots,” says Todd Adams, dean of students office at Duke University.

E-newsletters, emails and a large dose of one-on-one phone calls help to inform parents about the college culture, both easing concerns about any number of parent worries like social adjustment, academic performance, roommate compatibility and campus safety, and nipping those problems in the bud, says Kelly Young, director of parent relations and stewardship at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS).

Still, typical parental apprehensions notwithstanding, Young wants her son, Tim, to be on his own and have the college experience as if he were attending school on another campus out of state when he attends Hobart as a first-year this fall.

Experts claim that technology isn’t always friendly. Texting and email expose parents to problems when they’re new and very raw, says Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota and author of You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here if You Need Me).

How Often Should You Call?

Experts agree it’s important college students feel supported, but they should feel capable to make their own decisions.

Male and female students communicate differently:  Girls tend toward frequent, lengthy communications, according to Kaenzig, and when communication drops off, “it usually means things are going well.”  Boys tend to shy away from long conversations and prefer shorter, non-verbal communications—even worse, particularly in their mom’s perspective, no communication at all.

There’s no real rule-of-thumb about contact, but experts suggest parents limit text and calls, especially during the first weeks, leaving kids to do what is necessary to become acclimated. They also advise pre-arranging a once-a-week telephone time even before a youngster leaves for school.

Bill Barbour and his son Will, now a senior at University of North Carolina, fell into a pattern of Thursday-night calls based on Will’s first-year time commitments for an astronomy course. The pattern stuck, says Bill. “Thursday has been our night for the past three years.”

Sometimes innovation pays huge dividends. During the first week of college, a William Smith dad sent a handwritten letter to his daughter. He told her how much he missed her when he looked in her now- empty bedroom, but how excited he was for her future.

He included some stationery and stamps in case she wanted to write back. Their correspondence became a weekly occurrence; four years later upon her graduation, he presented her with a bound volume of the letters.

More in vogue, some parents are using social networking to keep in touch, however Savage warns this can be unsettling for some newly-independent students who end up mixing home and college life online.

The New Normal

Savage says parents should expect their youngsters to break away from family or test values during their college years.

Thanksgiving break also tends to be a first-year’s challenge, says Adams. Students have been living without curfews. Suddenly on break, their college and family worlds collide.

Early-on, Will Barbour says UNC became his new home. Despite a good relationship with his parents, he initially rejected returning to Boone, NC, where he grew up.

Tips for parents from parents

Think big picture. Not individual grades, says Cynthia Williams, professor of dance at HWS and mother of Kat who’s heading off to University of Rochester this fall.

Create a united front. Join forces with your spouse to parent consistently, says Barbour. “If Will’s mother and I can do it as divorced parents, any couple can.”

Give your kid space. Allow you youngster to visit home when he or she want to, says Young, but don’t pressure even, if like Tim, he attends school very close to home.

Enjoy outside-college moments. Share like activities and interests during downtime. Barbour says he and son, Will, hike, kayak and this summer drove cross-country, giving them time to catch up.

Have faith. Trust that your child’s good value system will win in the end, says Laura Stillman, a Duke parent. It seems like just yesterday we dropped Josh off with enough stuff to choke a cat. Now he’s graduated and out-the-door to New York City.