When my son went away to school six years ago, it was one of the most stressful times in my life. Though he’d always been a good student, a rule follower, that August before he left I laid in bed night after sleepless night, thinking, “Just the sort of kid who might go wild with his new-found freedom at college.” I forced those thoughts aside, and focused on the fact that I’d raised a competent, self-sufficient child who really wanted a college degree.
At that time, I’d worked on campus for over 15 years, mostly with at-risk students. I saw firsthand the shift from supportive parents who dropped their kids off at college and checked in with them once a month to hovering parents who dropped their kids off at college and called them before they left Eau Claire and continued to call them daily. “Helicopter parents” may have created this co-dependence, but our “satellite kids” — grown up tethered to us by cell phones and email, those not-so-imaginary apron strings — seem compelled to continue the pattern.
George Kuh, founding director of the National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE), claims students who communicate often with parents are more engaged. In a “Speak Out” column in On Campus he argued that helicopter parents have a positive influence and that students with helicopter parents were “more satisfied overall with the college experience,” even though students who reported less parental involvement earn slightly higher grades. A counterargument in the same “Speak Out” came from Donald Pollack, professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who maintains that over-involved parents lead to intrusive interventions like writing a paper for a child or calling professors. He wrote, “Helicoptering too often denies students the opportunity for emotional growth and development of independence.”
So how do we parents find a balance between swooping in to rescue or simply offering help when needed? Here are some tips I picked up (translate: learned the hard way) throughout my son’s five years to graduation:
The best cure for homesickness is staying at school.
It’s not really intuitive; if you miss home, shouldn’t you go home? Yet study after study shows the best way for students to overcome homesickness is to establish connections at school until that becomes a home-away-from-home. This means encouraging your child to stay on campus on the weekends. I knew this; still, when I’d get a late night call from my son about coming home, I sometimes caved. Finally, I appealed to his frugal side. I told him, “You’re paying a lot of money for a dorm room. It makes sense to stay there.” By sophomore year, I couldn’t get him to come home.
You can’t prepare them for what they don’t know they don’t know, so trust them to make their own mistakes and get through them.
My son once called me on a Saturday afternoon to say he was making chicken at a friend’s off campus. He said, “I talked to Dad this morning. He told me to wash the chicken first. Do I use soap?”
My son is an Eagle Scout who could be dropped in the middle of the county forest and find his way back home, but apparently I never told him about preparing meat for the grill.
He muddled through. All of us did that that age — without a cellphone to call home. Whatever your child doesn’t know will get figured out eventually.
Ask when to visit or call.
I always texted to ask my son, “When is a good time to talk for a few minutes this week?" I asked him to call me when it was convenient for him. I tried to listen more than talk — sometimes hard to do for a parent! I also realized that sometimes he just needed to vent about his history professor or his biology lab. I’d worry about it for days, but by the next time we talked, he’d say, “Oh, that. It’s all good.” He went away to school 90 minutes from home — an easy drive for me to visit for lunch once in awhile. I popped in for just a few hours, long enough for him to show me his town.
Write real letters (even if they don’t write back).
I’ve heard from many of my students that letters in an empty mailbox can make their day. I wrote letters to my son about every two weeks his first semester away. I always wrote less than a page (I know his attention span), and I included newspaper clippings about local high school sports teams, funny stories about his grandparents, or photos of anything that was happening at home. He NEVER wrote back and most of the time wouldn’t even comment about receiving my letters. A few years later I made some off-the-cuff remark about the letters I sent him freshman year. He said sweetly, “I still have every one of them.”
College is like a game preserve: students have room to roam but are still well protected, so stop worrying!
There are many “safety nets” at college, including professors, advisors, counselors and RA’s. All universities want their students to be retained; staff go out of their way to watch out for your children. I kept my New Student Orientation “Parent Handbook” handy so I could tell my son where to go for assistance if he asked. I also encouraged him to use his college’s website to find exactly the office and the help he needed.
Ask yourself, “Would I care about this if I had 8 kids?” If not, back off.
I’m the youngest of eight children, and I raised one son. My parents didn’t have time to fixate on any small issues, and in turn my siblings and I learned to deal with things on our own. It’s a fine line between being involved in your child’s life and controlling your child’s life. I sometimes would be more concerned about my son’s school performance than he was. Those moments reminded me to back off — always easier said than done.
Patti See is a Distinguished Student Services Coordinator in UW-Eau Claire’s Student Success Center where she coordinates tutoring programs and teaches courses for at-risk students. She also is a senior lecturer in the Women’s Studies Program. Her son just started a career with the federal government, and for the first week his dream was fulfilled: he got to wear a suit every day.
For more about her experiences during her son’s first year of college, see her article which appeared in Inside Higher Ed: “Confessions of a (Sometimes) Helicopter Parent”