An Open Letter to Parents of Incoming Freshmen
It's time to go from participant/coach to audience/cheerleader in your child's life.
Dear Parents of Incoming Freshmen,
Congratulations! Your child is off to college. You may be experiencing any number of different emotions at this time, likely some mixture of happiness and sadness, excitement and anxiety.
If you are now empty nesters, as was the case with my parents, you may be experiencing unbridled joy, and also deciding that the house does indeed need central air conditioning and heat that your children were clamoring for over the last fifteen years.
A mix of emotions is to be expected, and even respected. I won’t do you the disservice of acting like this isn’t a big deal, that the stakes are low.
But there’s one thing you need to do if you want your child to succeed in college, and for some of you, for the very best of reasons (love/concern) it is going to be very hard.
I want you to let your children struggle, up to and including the point of “failure.”
I say this because one of the most important factors when it comes to your child’s ultimate well-being and happiness is the development of something called “human agency,” which is the ability to “act” in the world, to make decisions and carry out actions rooted in self-confidence in one’s knowledge and abilities. So many studies correlate agency with happiness that it isn’t even in dispute anymore, and the typical college freshman often has little practice with it.
Yes, I’m telling you it’s necessary to back off, at least a bit, and in some cases, a lot.
This list is neither sacrosanct nor exhaustive, but some thoughts for you to consider.
1. Call less than you probably want to.
When I ask my students how many of them talk to their parents at least several times a week (or even every day, or multiple times a day), at least 80% raise their hands. This is often accompanied with an eye roll gesture and/or shrug. This is not because students don’t want to talk to their parents, but because they want to do it on their agenda and their time. They perceive themselves as being very busy, and calls from home are often treated as annoying interruptions.
This is why your child may throw some ‘tude your way when you check in on them at 3:30 in the afternoon, just as they’re ready for naptime.
If you can establish a routine where your child calls you, you’re likely to get a person who is much more receptive to having a meaningful conversation. They really do want to maintain a connection with home, but they don’t want to feel forced into it.
The worst thing is to chastise your child for not calling you, or not returning a call in a timely fashion (why didn’t you call me back?) You are training them to ignore your calls altogether.
By calling too often, you’re signaling to your child that they need monitoring, and they may even come to accept this reality, even as they resent it.
2. Do nothing that they can do for themselves.
Gone are the days of scheduling dentist appointments, or calling in prescription refills, or rousting your child out of bed in time for school, or arranging for that summer internship or job. The best way to help your child develop agency is to insist that they do these things that they’re well capable of doing themselves.
They will kvetch over this because it is much easier to have a mother/personal secretary do it, and you may worry that important things aren’t getting done, but once they adjust, everyone will be happier.
3. Resist the urge to interfere or assist in their academics.
Thankfully, I rarely experience parents contacting me directly about their children’s grades – something I can promise most faculty will not be receptive to - but many of my students do report using their parents as a frontline resource when it comes to struggles at school. If they are confused about an assignment or homework, students will often turn to their parents for help, asking them for clarification, or even tutoring.
I have a number of students that outsource essays to parents for proofreading, something they’ve always done in high school.
The difficulties with this are multi-fold. For one, no offense, but your help might be bad, or inconsistent with the aims of the instructor, and when your child does poorly because of this, they will blame you, even though it’s mostly their fault. For another, when you step in, your child is not developing in terms of agency.
If a student is confused, her first contact must be her professor. If your child reaches out for academic help, redirect her towards the on-campus resources available, of which there are many.
4. Let them choose their classes/major/life’s purpose and direction.
The fact is, particularly once they’ve been on campus a semester, your child knows much more about what is good/right for them academically than you do. The experiences they’re having are likely shaping their notions about what they can and want to do with their lives. If they’ve entered as pre-med, but express a desire to switch to marine biology or, god forbid, creative writing, rather than laying down the law and explaining how they’re ruining their chances at future employment, ask them why they feel compelled to make this change.
This process will allow your child to assess their own motives and make a more fully-informed decision. They may come around to your way of thinking on their own, and at the least, you’ll know the reasons behind their choice, and understand that it isn’t being taken lightly.
As much as we may worry about future prospects, what good are those prospects if the day-to-day journey towards them is miserable?
5. Express empathy, rather than judgment, when problems arise.
Let’s say something bad happens, like a D on a freshman writing essay, or a citation for alcohol in a dorm room. When your child calls you with news like this, try to refrain from any kind of scolding (How could you let that happen?) or punishment.
Ironically, this is why they’ve called you. They’re looking to absolve their guilt and anxiety by offloading it onto you. If mom or dad gets pissed, then lesson learned. What they’re most hoping for is for you to yell at them before you step in and help them solve the problem.
Instead, indicate how you understand that these problems are probably major suckage and ask them how they intend to remedy the situation so as not to fall prey to these negative outcomes in the future.
Solving the problems one causes for oneself is a significant factor in developing agency, and navigating these relatively small bumps are excellent practice.
6. Put them on a budget and stick to it no matter what.
I have no hard evidence of this, but my 16 years of teaching experience tells me that the students who are responsible for earning their own spending money do better academically. My theory is that the forced discipline of limited funds translates to good study habits and other responsible behaviors.
It’s also possible that broke people have nothing to do but study.
Either way, a blank check for your young college student is an invitation to trouble. They also aren’t learning important lessons about the limits of things, be it money or time.
Nothing says lessoned learned like burning through those meal dollars by the 20th of the month and needing to live on Raman cooked in the dorm microwave for a week.
They’ll break this out as a point of pride for the rest of their lives, particularly in front of your future grandchildren as they tell them how easy they have it.
7. When it’s time to step in, don’t hesitate.
The vast majority of students do well when they go away to college, but in some cases, they run into significant problems and need rescuing. Most colleges and universities do an excellent job of keeping track of their students, freshmen especially, but no one knows their child like a parent. If you detect that your child is seriously struggling, don’t wait to step in.
In a number of cases I’ve had students who would’ve experienced much less disruption in their studies if they’d simply withdrawn for a period of time, rather than trying to “muddle through” to the end of the semester. A semester or year delay in schooling is preferable to having to deal with extended mental or physical health issues.
Some of these may be tough. I understand how strongly you desire success for your child, and to see them buffeted by negative experiences will be difficult. You’re in the protection business, and as grown up as they are in some ways, they still look and often act like children.
But success and happiness are a long game, and letting your child learn how to dust themselves off after a tough blow is a key component to achieving these things. Rather than being a participant/coach in your child’s life, think of your role as more audience/cheerleader. You’re still involved and passionate and wholly invested, but you’re more helpful in the stands than on the field.
Your children will thank you for this later. Or not, since parenting can be a thankless job.
I’ll thank you for them in advance, how’s that?
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