College Parents: Staying Connected With Your Child
By Beth Fredericks, M.Ed. | For StudentAdvisor.com
You’ve had other experiences separating from your child — at kindergarten, camp, or sending him off to visit a relative or ex-spouse alone for the first time. However, leaving home for college may be one of the most emotional moments for any parent yet — filled with excitement and anticipation, as well as an acute sense of loss. Here are some tips that may help you, the College Parent, and your college student stay connected while they’re away.
KISS THEM GOOD-BYE
Most parents describe the days leading up to their child’s departure as intensely emotional. Whether you are tearing up occasionally, planning a final family dinner, or the siblings are arguing over which Wii games stay or go, you should be careful not to assume that your child or other family members are feeling the same way. Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt, authors of The Launching Years, say, “A useful guideline is to avoid the extremes: during a child’s final days at home parents should, for example, resist possessiveness, refrain from guilt-tripping them into something they don’t want to do, and avoid generating a drawn-out emotive display. If a parent’s emotions are running extremely strong, containing some of it can be a real kindness to the child.” Take a deep breath, hug it out, and let them go.
When many parents went to school, a weekly call home on Sundays was the norm, determined by long distance rates. According to a recent survey, college kids today are in contact with home by cell phone or email an average of 10 times a week. Barbara K. Hofer, professor of psychology at Middlebury College and co-author, with Abby Sullivan Moore, of The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up (Free Press, 2010), advises laying the groundwork before your kid leaves for college. She says, “Have a conversation about how often you want to talk, how you want to communicate, and when this is best for both of you.”
SELECT THE TECH THAT FITS YOU BEST
Sorting out the best methods of communication with your student can be confusing. You may be used to calling their cell phone and leaving a message or simply texting “call me.” Instant messaging is available on Google, Facebook, and AIM - which one does your child use most? Parents of students studying overseas swear by Skype, which allows you to see and hear your child via webcams. There’s no charge and it works anywhere. You need to figure out which option fits your family the best.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The big question remains — how often do you talk? Every day? Once a week? When the spirit moves you? Experimenting might be the best way to go. Ask your child what might be a good time to check in. More isn’t necessarily better. Professor Hofer found that those kids “who are in the highest frequency of communication and whose parents are continuing to regulate their behavior and academics are the least autonomous and least satisfied with the college experience and their relationship with parents.”
When your child hears the kooky ringtone your child has designated for your calls, you don’t want them ducking it like the whoosh whoosh whoosh of a helicopter blade. College is their venue for entering adulthood, and you cannot, and should not, micromanage their experience.
Here are some subjects that may come up, and some tips for handling them:
Many of those calls home will open or end with your kid asking for money. One way for you to stay on top of her spending patterns is to open a bank account that enables you to monitor her transactions and make deposits online. Together you can fine-tune her budget by determining if your child is spending more or less than you anticipated. Boys don’t automatically pick up the check these days; and prices are higher than in your youth.
Consider depositing a set amount in her account every month, or a lump sum for the entire academic year. Some parents require a call whenever funds are low, which may guarantee more contact with your child. However, this may keep them from developing financial and emotional independence. If you start to feel more like a bank than a parent, a frank discussion is warranted. Enjoy those times they call just to chat, and not to ask for money.
Though you are footing the bill, the college may not tell you how your child is doing. Privacy issues could prevent the administration from sending home a report card unless your child specifically authorizes it. Because of this, academics are a good topic to address. Ask about their goals for the current year. Are their classes tougher or easier than they expected? Are they experimenting with course selections? What subject is a revelation? Which professor is a snooze?
College is about so much more than classes. There are roommates, clubs, and sports— and, yes, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. How much are you going to pry about their social lives? Perhaps sharing stories of your own shenanigans will make your child feel more comfortable about opening up. You don’t want to be the inquisitor, but rather the confidant available to listen. Make sure they know that you want to hear from them whether they have good news or just want someone to listen.
When you are faced with any of these inevitable phone calls, Lori Tenser, Dean of First-Year Students at Wellesley College, suggests that parents say things such as: “Wow, that sounds like a challenging problem; what will you do about it? Or, who on campus is there to help you with that? How can I be supportive while you figure out what to do?”
If you are not too far away, a great way to stay in touch is by visiting in person. You will earn lots of brownie points for showing up. If your child is playing sports try to make as many games as you can. If they are performing in concerts or shows, plan to attend.
Just like when you left “secret messages” in her lunch box in elementary school, college students love cards, gifts, and “care packages” from home. You can send home-baked cookies, rolls of quarters, photos of the family pet, or a commercial birthday bash kit. I have a friend who contacted her local temple to send her kids Hanukkah-in-a-box. These small efforts will reassure your child that he is still connected to home and to you, and that staying in touch is important.
Try to get to know your child’s new roommates and friends by more than name. If you live close by, invite them to your house for a holiday, especially if they live too far away to travel home. Learn the phone number of your kid’s favorite college pizza outfit and have food delivered to the dorm during exams. Most of all, listen carefully to your child and acknowledge their new expertise, passion, and know-how. You are not just staying connected to the child you raised, but getting to know the adult they are becoming.
Beth Fredericks holds a BA in Education and an M.Ed in Early Childhood Development, and is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University, and Tufts University. She is a parenting educator, community builder, and advocate for children and families.