Nowadays, “going off to college” isn’t just about a teenager leaving home. It’s also about parents learning to let go.
Many colleges now offer college orientation for parents, not just incoming students. These events can often last for days and cover topics such as campus safety, alcoholism, health issues, communicating with the university, homesickness and how not to be a helicopter parent.
On Thursday, I was joined by Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University, to discuss the fine art of letting go. Here’s what he had to say to some of your questions.
College administrators have found that today’s millennial students — along with their late-Baby Boomer and early-Generation X parents — often need more hand-holding than generations before.
The Class of 2015 was mostly born in 1993, and they have grown up with e-mail, cellphones and Starbucks. Most were in third grade on Sept. 11, so they are accustomed to heavy security and trusting adults in positions of authority. Their academic successes have been measured in standardized test scores, and their social ones are documented in Facebook newsfeeds.
In June, I sat through two days of parent orientation at George Washington University, which allows moms and dads to explore campus, meet administrators and make friends of their own. There were at least two sessions that left many parents (mostly the moms) in tears.
One such session was a series of skits on the first night of orientation. In one skit, two soon-to-be empty nesters drop their son off at his dorm. The mom keeps coming up with excuses to come back to his dorm room, like having forgotten her scarf and sunglasses.
The dad rolls his eyes and drags her back to the car. But later, at home, the mom finds him playing their son’s Xbox in his room.
“You don’t play XBox. You’re 50. That’s weird,” the mom says, prompting a discussion of how they both miss their son in different ways.
As soon as the lights came up, a discussion of the skits began with a flurry of hands in the air.
“I’m falling apart,” one mom said with a shaky voice. “I have to be strong. Whatever I do, I have to be strong.”
Another mom shared how she was surprised when her outgoing older son went away to school and was homesick: “It never occurred to me that he would be.”
Another mom jumped in with: “You just never know how it’s going to hit you, until it hits you.”
Over and over again, administrators and student leaders said all of these feelings were normal. They also repeated this mantra: “Independence encouraged.” But they urged parents to call university officials if problems arise — especially those that are life-threatening.
At dinner after the skits, I listened in as a group of East Coast parents discussed letting go.
“You know that skit of the mom who keeps coming back?” said Steve Tilley, a dad from Rhode Island whose youngest son will start at GWU this fall. He pointed over at his wife, Pat. “I’m going to be saying: ‘No, we really need to leave. You have to let him be independent.’ ”
“You’ve raised them for 18 years,” Pat Tilley said. “So, it’s not like you’re not a part of their life anymore. But still ... ”
Again, I will be online Thursday afternoon at 1 p.m. Eastern to discuss the fine art of supporting your college student without being a dreaded helicopter parent. I will be joined by Marshall Duke, a psychology professor at Emory University. (Click here to join in.)
For more than 25 years, Duke has given an annual lecture for parents during freshman orientation called, “Parenting a college student: What to expect.” Duke has authored seven books and more than 70 articles, and his numerous television appearances include slots on the “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America.”
Here’s a video of Duke’s latest speech: