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A New Way to Look at Parent Involvement in College

Sharon Bond

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"Don't you have 'people' there?"

This question was once posed to me by a mom who was upset that her first-year student was going to have to put away his own clothes and clean his bathroom himself in college. The horror!

True, there are some unexpected new tasks, even rude awakenings, for students when they realize they have a lot more responsibility living away from home. But doing my laundry and cleaning the bathroom (though a total bummer) was something I was expected to do as soon as I could reach the washer knobs and know better than to poison myself with cleanser.

As surprised as I was to get a phone call like this, and confused about how to respond, I knew instantly that it wasn’t really about the chores. What this parent was experiencing was loss.

She wouldn’t be there to do things for her son. He wasn’t in the house any more. She wouldn’t know if he needed something, if he was starting to get sick, if he was having a bad day.

She was feeling disconnected and not needed. 

Because there is a lack of understanding about the transition that parents of new college students go through, we often see and hear parents labeled as overbearing and intrusive. As a professional in higher education, and a parent myself, I've always experienced mixed feelings when I hear the phrases “helicopter parent” or “snowplow parent” — or the worst, “stealth parent.”

The phrases may be catchy and funny, but to me they seem like a cheap shot, enabling the one making the joke to bypass feeling empathy for another person’s experience. They convey to parents that their involvement is unwelcome, and that their kids shouldn’t depend on them for anything.

The truth is, your involvement is necessary.

You know your kids best, how they respond to stress, and when things just don’t seem right. They are trying to keep up with their work, get themselves to class on time, and manage a new living situation, all while trying to make new friends and balance their social life with their responsibilities.

We know very well as parents we should get involved in situations that are physically or emotionally harmful to our kids, but other situations aren't as clear. We may assume they want help when they tell us about an issue they’re facing, but sometimes that isn’t what they want at all, and jumping right in could cause more stress for them.

Here are three useful questions to ask that will help you determine if it’s time for you to hold back and let your student take care of things.

"Is there something I can do to help?"

Almost every parent gets a call from their student during the first term that stresses them out. A lot of the time, it happens within the first few weeks.

Be ready for it. Sometimes there is crying, complaints about too much work, too much pressure, too little time, or a relationship is breaking down.

Mostly, they just need you to listen — without giving advice right away. Let them talk for as long as they want. When there is a break and they seem to be waiting for you to reply, just ask them if they want your help, and if they do, in what way. Try to resist the impulse to jump into action. That may not be what they are looking for.

"What do you think you should do?"

Even when it seems obvious what they should do, and you’re ready to give them advice, ask them this question. This is one of the best ways to show them you have confidence in their ability to solve problems. It’s one of the most useful questions you can ask, because it shifts their awareness toward autonomous action. They will begin to skip the step of looking outside of themselves for authority.

You’ve probably done this a hundred times in other situations, but when they are away from us, and they are stressed out, our own stress rises and we just want to fix it. We’ve learned this behavior from years of being their fixer.

It could take some time to let go and let them handle things on their own. This isn't just a freshman year issue!

"Do you know where to go for help on campus?"

By asking this question, you’re giving them the opportunity to think about what they need, where to  find it, and to normalize that everyone needs help sometimes.

Students get information about these resources often, but a lot of them don’t ever think they will need it and they don’t remember it’s there. If you're familiar with their resources ahead of time, you’ll be able to help them quickly, if they don’t already know. Start looking at the school’s website and find out how students get access to medical care, counselors, tutors and academic coaches. All of these resources are usually found in the Student Affairs office.

The answers you get from asking these questions should help to start a productive conversation, but listen to your gut. If you feel like something isn’t right, you may want to contact the school to talk it over. Your involvement is always appropriate if you think something is wrong, and your perspective is important.

Everyone comes to college with a different experience. Whether your kids are used to doing their own laundry and cleaning the bathroom, or if they’ve never done these things on their own, they get the hang of it pretty quickly and feel good about themselves, too.

Just as every first-year student has done, yours will adjust to the responsibilities added in to daily life. It’s always a little tough to start something new, but if it wasn’t a little difficult, it wouldn’t be worth doing. Learning to “adult” is a big part of the first year in college. You’ve done a great job preparing your student to launch. Now it’s time to lean back, and let them.

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Sharon Bond has been a parent advocate at the University of Denver for 13 years, educating parents and families about the transition to college and how to navigate their own shifting identity and support their new college student. The mother of college-age daughters, she is no stranger to rolling with life's unpredictability and shares her experiences to help parents who are sending their first (or even their third) child to college.
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