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Hands-Off Parenting in College

Suzanne Shaffer

If you just helped your daughter or son move into their first-year residence hall, you may be back at home right now wondering why you feel more rather than less concerned about them than you did while they were still living under your roof.

Parenting changes when our children start college but it doesn't end. Our parenting instincts remain on high alert, especially because we know this time of transition will be challenging for them.

The current generation of parents has been able to be more involved in our children’s lives than any previous one. We checked their grades online, monitored them on social media, tracked them using GPS technology, and kept them busy with play dates and activities from preschool through high school. No wonder many of us find it hard to loosen the reins.

The good news: studies show parent/family involvement is crucial to student success in college. Our role is still valuable. However, too much involvement — what I call hands-on (vs. hands-off) parenting — can impede a college student’s journey into adulthood.

How do we parent without over parenting and falling into the “helicopter” mode we worked so hard to avoid all these years? How do we stay involved without taking over — encourage our students but not be heavy-handed with our advice, or worse still try to make their decisions for them?

As you'll discover, there is a fine line between hands-on and hands-off parenting. Your support and encouragement remain essential, but your college student needs to build confidence by doing things on their own — socially, academically and emotionally. A student whose parent jumps in the car and races to campus to deal with roommate issues, homesickness or problems with a professor may become the person who has trouble after graduation navigating conflict and self-advocating at work. Parents who “snowplow” (clear the path so offspring will encounter no bumps or obstacles) hinder their students' ability to function and thrive in the real world.

How do we practice hands-off parenting?

The first step is to let go. Believe me, I know it’s hard! But it really is best to sit back and allow your student to make decisions and make mistakes.

It will be painful when your son or daughter is crying on the phone day after day and begging you to rescue them. Instead of swooping in Superhero style, a better scenario is to listen, encourage and respect their decisions. Offer advice if they ask for it, but let them solve the problem. That’s how they learn. The experience will give them confidence, and the next time a challenge arises, they’ll know they can handle it.

Maybe you would never ride to the rescue with a dramatic campus visit, but hands-on parenting can include seemingly benign actions like calling, texting and emailing continuously to ask about your student’s day, their exams, their friends and roommates, pretty much everything. Our smartphones make this all too easy.

Let your student contact you. Establish a regular communication schedule, giving them the freedom to be independent without constant supervision. It might be something as simple as one text a day to check in or a phone call on the weekend. Adjusting to college requires space and time to develop skills, friendships and independence.

Like everything worthwhile in life, achieving a healthy balance in our involvement as college parents takes time, so the sooner we start, the sooner we will find ourselves in a place that feels just about right. We can be thankful that our college students have this wonderful opportunity to mature and grow toward independence. They need practice making their own decisions, the freedom to make mistakes, and the chance to learn about consequences. You, in turn, will always be there to provide structure, advice, support and encouragement. Hands-off parenting will help your student transition into a self-sufficient life after college.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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