My College:

Start a Real Conversation with Your College Student


By Marlene Kern Fischer

Communicating with your college student can be a tricky thing. When (and if) you’re able to reach them, you may find that they’re in a rush, surrounded by other people or simply not in the mood to chat. You’re willing to settle for a text conversation, but even those can be less than illuminating (“TTYL”).

After sharing your student’s daily life for 18 years, it’s understandable that these abbreviated exchanges may leave you feeling blue. Cheer up! There are ways to improve your conversations. Through trial and error, I’ve identified three approaches which can be used to glean information from a college student. The methods aren’t mutually exclusive; you can employ any combination.

The Humorous Approach

My sons get less annoyed at what they view as prying if I make them laugh first. Example: “Are you eating your Tide pods or using them?” This might elicit a chuckle (or a groan) and pave the way for a discussion about things such as how often they’re doing laundry, what they’re eating, and other nuts and bolts of college life. I was appalled to discover that my boys were only changing their sheets a few times each term and was willing to use any opening to encourage more attention to housekeeping.

The Roundabout Approach

Our college students don’t appreciate us snooping into their social lives, especially regarding relationships. My oldest son once told me flat out that when and if there was an important development in this area he’d let me know. But I was rarely patient enough to wait. When I knew my two older sons had their fraternity formal coming up, I’d ask about it and then oh-so casually inquire if they were taking anyone. This was how I discovered both of them had girlfriends.

I also used the roundabout approach to find out how they were getting along with their roommates. When it was time for next year’s housing selection, I’d ask if they planned on living with their current roommate, and if not, who they were considering instead. This gave me some insight into the shifting landscape of their friendships. It can be a way to get them talking about the classes they’re taking as well. Saying something like, “I just paid the Amazon order for your sociology books — they look interesting,” might pave the way for them to open up.

You can employ the roundabout approach as a gentle prompt, too. Meeting with professors is important to having a successful academic career. As a senior my middle son expressed regret that he didn’t start going to his professors’ office hours until halfway through college. If you want to know if your student has reached out to their professors, you might ask, “So, does your history professor have pictures of her spouse and kids on her desk? How about her dog?” Your student may get the hint, find out when office hours are, and plan to stop in.

The Direct Approach

Sometimes this is the only way to go. Parents worry — it’s alright to just come out and ask what we want to know if we’re concerned (or even merely curious). If our students get annoyed, so be it. I‘ve asked my sons outright about their health, happiness and homesickness, to name just a few topics. When using the direct approach it’s best to be specific. Instead of “how are you feeling?” try, “It sounds like your allergies are bothering you — are you taking your medicine?” I avoid open-ended questions where the answer could be “fine” because more often than not that’s the answer I’ll get.

Not every student is a born communicator and you may have to learn to live with that. I find that my sons generally share more in person and sometimes I have to wait until I see them to find out what’s really going on.

At the end of the day, at a time in their life when they’re asserting their independence, no matter what you ask or how you ask it, you may be met with some resistance. Keep trying. The important thing is for them to know that you’re always there, ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.

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