This was written by Laurie L. Hazard, a psychology professor and a scholar of first-year-student transitions at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, where she serves as director of the university’s Academic Center for Excellence.
By Laurie L. Hazard
High school graduation has long been viewed as the first big step toward full-fledged adulthood and independence. Today, however, this “social clock” is changing, as both parents and many institutions of higher education relate to students in a way that essentially prolongs childhood among students.
Instead of fostering (promoting) this youthful reliance among students and extending control among parents, campuses and families should work together to put undergrads back on the young-adult track. It’s the best way to prepare them to become happy and successful young adults.
Over the past decade, parents have received mixed messages about their role in their child’s college experience, about holding on to their son or daughter versus letting them go. Every day, parents see consumer articles offering best practices to protect their investment in higher education and helping their kids get the most from college. They are also inundated with articles identifying them as hyper-involved in their children’s on-campus lives, criticizing them for intervening in their college experience from orientation through graduation.
This generation of parents has readily accepted that they have earned the Helicopter Parent label. Some flaunt the label proudly, despite warnings that their “hovering” may undermine success and prevent their children from learning some fundamental lessons of young adulthood — such as negotiating conflicts, advocating for themselves, and coping with disappointment
Most colleges have given up pushing back, and instead have created programs to meet parent demands. Traditionally, freshman orientation programs were one of the major ways that universities helped first- year students make the transition from high school to college. Though this is still the intention of new student orientations, the practice of parent orientation sessions is now also deeply embedded into college campuses nationwide.
According to the National Survey of College and University Parent Programs, in 1999, some 35 percent of institutions offered parent orientations. In 2007, over 95 percent conducted them.
Universities also continue to expand programs to help parents balance the complexities of stepping in to help their children. Many now create parent advisory boards, parent empowerment councils, and even entire departments dedicated to parent involvement in their children’s higher education experience.
Mixed signals abound, as campuses contribute to the confusion: you’re welcomed to stay involved in your child’s college life; you should feel confident to let us guide your child’s higher-education experience.
To avoid creating a campus climate of college as an extension of high school, campuses should be clearer in their messaging to parents, and some tough love is definitely overdue.
Colleges should consider creating a top-ten list of Do’s and Don’ts for parents to post on their websites. For instance, parents should not contact faculty members about their students’ grades. Instead, they should encourage their student to utilize professors’ office hours to discuss academic progress in a particular course.
Campuses would also do well to provide professional development opportunities for faculty and administrators to help them navigate the new challenges of interfacing with parents and students, and set appropriate boundaries with parents. This generation of parents has worked hard to protect their children from stressful experiences, and as a result, they have fostered more dependence. Understanding where everyone is coming from is the first step to creating a healthy climate.
Colleges and universities should help departments establish guidelines for how they are going to work with parents. Often, if parents are calling offices for information, it is likely an indication that there is a communication breakdown between the parent and student. Utilize the phone call as an opportunity to support the parent and student to reopen lines of communication with each other.
How much contact between college students and their parents is too much? The Second Annual Survey on College Parent Expectations indicated that 72.5 percent of parents communicate with their college students at least 2 or 3 times per week. If parents wish to foster independence, this number of weekly contacts may be excessive, depending on the purpose of the communication.
Parents need to ask themselves whether they are calling to simply touch base or keep tabs on their students. Parents and students should determine a communication plan that is comfortable for both parties.
It is inevitable that students will contact their parents for advice and support, particularly during that first semester. Parents should familiarize themselves with the inner working of their students’ institutions. As a result, when students call home for help, parents will be able to coach and counsel them through the system as opposed to diving in and tackling administrative issues themselves. It is always best to support your student from a healthy distance.
Parents should get to know the ebbs and flows of a semester — when semester “hot spots” take place — and keep lines of communication open.
For instance, the “honeymoon stage” ends for roommates and new friendships usually around week three or four during the first year, and at the same time, this is when the stark realization that work is piling up sets in. Mid-terms usually take place during weeks seven and eight, a very stressful part of the semester. Parents should intentionally check in at these points to see how things are going.
Above all though, parents should remember that there are experts on college campuses in various departments to support their students through all of these transition issues. Parents should advise their student about whom to call on as a way of providing more guidance and less hands-on intervention.
This may be hard for many parents to understand and impossible for others to accept. However, sometimes, the best way to help your college student grow and succeed is to get out of the way and let them and the experts do their jobs together.
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