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Suggestions for Parents

  • Trust them.

Finding oneself is a difficult enough process without feeling that the people whose opinions you respect most are second-guessing your own second-guessing. One of the most important things my mom ever wrote me in my four years at college was this: "I love you and want for you all the things that make you the happiest; and I guess you, not I, are the one who knows best what those things are." She wrote that during my senior year. If you're smart, you'll believe it, mean it and say it now.

  • Listen to them.

When they make that selection of what college to attend, what major to select or career path to follow, listen to them. If they ask your opinion, give it freely and make your suggestions, but let them make the final decision.

  • Talk to and with them, not at them.

Advisers are well aware if students' opinions are honored at home. Those who must continually be hand-held or find it impossible to make decisions are usually those who were "talked at" and told what they must do.

  • During their first year, do not ask them what they are going to do after college.

They have enough difficulty selecting classes and feel enormous pressure to make that life-long decision even before they have proved their academic capability. Pushing them to focus on the future can have an adverse effect on their present performance. They want to please you, but they must learn that they need to please themselves. You'd do them a real service if you encouraged them to seek out all the services on campus that can help them: everything from advising to counseling to career placement.

  • Don't blame the college for their misbehavior.

They are going to be subjected to situations, opportunities and temptations in which they bear sole responsibility. The university cannot protect them from making errors if they are determined to do so. If they fall in love the very first term (a very common occurrence) and then are jilted, they may act out. If they seek acceptance by becoming very social, their grades will show it. They are going through the process of developing a new social support network away from high school.

  • If you were puzzled by them in high school, you certainly will be confused by them when they are in college.

Their university experiences will frequently contribute to your amazement. They will be exposed to and, it is hoped, learn new things, polish their innate academic and intellectual skills and generally mature. They may make remarks about how the country should be run, the university be reorganized and how you or someone should lead their lives. They are becoming aware of the power of words, or developing a sort of new language and, in general, beginning to feel a little better about themselves.

  • Ask questions (but not too many).

College freshmen are "cool" (or so they think) and have a tendency to resent interference with their newfound lifestyle, but most still desire the security of knowing that someone is still interested in them.

Parental curiosity can be obnoxious and alienating or relief-giving and supportive, depending on the attitudes of the persons involved. "I-have-a-right-to-know" tinged questions or the nag should be avoided. However, honest inquiries and other "between friends" communication and discussion will do much to further the parent-freshman relationship.

  • Expect change (but not too much).

Your son or daughter will change (either drastically within the first few months, slowly over four years or somewhere in between that pace). It's natural, inevitable and can be inspiring and beautiful. Often, it's a pain in the neck. College and the experiences associated with it can effect changes in social, vocational and personal behavior and choices. You can't stop change, you may not ever understand it, but it is within your power (and to your and your son's or daughter's advantage) to accept it.

Remember that your freshman will be basically the same person that you sent away to school, aside from interest changes and personality revisions. Don't expect too much too soon. Maturation is not an instantaneous or overnight process and you might well discover your freshman returning home with some of the habits and hang-ups, however unsophisticated, that you thought he or she had "grown out of." Be patient.

  • Do not tell your son or daughter that "these are the best years of their lives."

Freshman year (and the other three as well) can be full of indecisions, insecurities, disappointments and, most of all, mistakes. They're also full of discovery, inspiration, good times and people but, except in retrospect, it's not the good that stands out.

Any parent who believes that all college students get good grades, know what they want to major in, always have activity-packed weekends and thousands of close friends, and lead carefree, worry-free lives is wrong. So are the parents who think "college educated" means "mistake-proof". Parents who perpetuate and insist upon the "best years" stereotype are working against their child's already difficult self-development. Those who accept and understand the highs and lows of their son's or daughter's reality are providing the support and encouragement where it's needed most.

  • If they suddenly decide to change their program, be supportive.

Many students experience a real trauma when they seek to change their major program. They often feel "the folks" won't understand or will disapprove and that something's wrong with them because the first choice was incorrect, a mistake, or they lost interest and can't explain just why. They'll need your support in their efforts to be understood. If a pre-engineer suddenly changes to art, encourage them to do their best. You may be disappointed initially (after all, you want what you think is best for your child), but the very act of supporting their decisions can be the most important gesturer. Always keep in mind they are in collegiate studies to learn for themselves, not to please any observer.

  • Please understand college is not "vo-tech" training.

Almost all students enter the university so as to get that degree which will "guarantee" them that great job. The sad reality is that a degree will not guarantee anything. Lack of a degree will insure that a career search will be very difficult. Universities and society itself has promoted the value of a degree. But all students must understand (and your support is absolutely essential in this) that a degree indicates a new level of skill achievement in the basics. No matter how many degrees they earn, if they cannot demonstrate the skills of writing, oral communication, the ability to listen and make decisions, or fail to seek improvement through constructive criticism and evaluations, they will not experience much success after college.

  • If they decide to "stop-out," compliment them.

If they are seriously considering a "stop-out" for academic reasons, personal confusion or a need of an extensive period of reflection, respect that situation. Any student who has formulated a rationale for a stop-out has made a monumental decision. It is very common for many students to feel they should leave school for a period of time, do a little work, find out a bit more about what society is doing or has to offer, and simply want to be away from the college scene. Those whose goals are undefined (or who find collegiate studies less than inspiring) may need a "stop-out." It may be the best thing they could do. Not everyone should do it, but if they tell you they simply want to go to work for a while, let them. I can almost guarantee (note I said almost) they will return to the university as better students.

  • Let go.

That is probably the hardest thing for you or any parent to do. It serves as a reminder to parents that they are getting considerably "more mature." Yet it is essential for students to "spread their wings." You must be supportive and yet an observer. You must show concern without being judgmental, show you want to help without being involved. You are their backup. They will see no contradiction in wanting their freedom and your involved concern. They want to be thought of as "mature," and yet will lose themselves in a flurry or words trying to explain their goals to you. Be assured they will seek your advice and yet try to escape from your influence. They think being a freshman is difficult, but they are in for a real "jolt" when they become seniors about to graduate.

  • Please do not compete with them.

Many parents judge their children's productivity by "how well they do things in relation to how WE DID IT way back when." Well, what may have worked for you may not be the best way for them. And if it is, they still have to learn that on their own. If they do want to follow in your footsteps, feel flattered. Let them compete with you but not you with them. If they set different goals for themselves than what you did for yourself, encourage them to follow that different drummer.

  • They are going to make mistakes and you cannot stop them.

Too many students seek to get through collegiate studies without ever making a mistake. This is impossible. Some try to have their whole life mapped out only to meet a "fork in the road." They suddenly have to make a decision and may want someone else to do it for them. When students make errors, I am interested in how they handle the situations. I want to know what they learned from the experience.

  • Don't go behind their back.

There is no greater act of distrust than to try to find out how they are performing academically or socially without their knowledge. For a parent to call or visit the campus with the intent of trying to wheedle information from a college representative is, in a word, "outrageous." If you want information, ask them. If they refuse to answer your queries, it could mean anything from, "they don't know how to express themselves",  to the feeling that "what they do is really none of your concern".

  • On the other hand, don't practice denial.

If you receive a call from a university representative about their behavior, don't rush to defend them. If you discover they are on probation or will be suspended, don't damn the professors who gave them a failing mark. Try to ascertain if your child sought out the services that could help. Did they accept the responsibility for themselves? Or did they simply "go with the flow" and when a problem arose, "no one told them about it." As an adviser, I find it ironic that individuals who are old enough to vote, fight for their country and biologically capable of conceiving children, are often too immature to fend for themselves and continually seek the protection of their parents when confronted with the consequences of their childish behavior.

  • Never forget, they will always be your children.

That can be either a chilling or a comforting thought. If the college experience does anything for them, it reinforces the positive attitudes and values you instilled in them while you cared for them. They may talk a little differently (it will still be English), express views for which you do not have the same frame of reference and still consider you the "old man" or "old lady." I heard an elderly Irish woman once say, "Even Mary and Joseph had trouble with their kid, and they only had one who came with interesting options." There is a truth in that statement. Like you, we want them to succeed and we recognize that your role in their success is significant.


Adapted from the Orientation Director's Manual National Orientation Directors Association (NODA), 1992.