I recently spoke to a friend of mine who is a college professor at a large state university. He asked me about my daughters’ freshman year at college and how it was going.
I shared the stresses they experienced and the small wins they achieved, and I may have mentioned how hard it was to sit on my hands and not fix some of their problems. “It’s hard not to be there to help.”
That’s when he unleashed a floodgate of experiences he and his fellow professors had with parents over the last few years. He is the parent to a recent college graduate, so he’s seen both sides, but his message was clear: parents are not letting their kids learn how to manage their problems, and the kids aren’t fighting it.
I get it in some regards. College is expensive, and it’s tough when you feel like you are wasting money, so I reached out to two other professors I know to get their take–and it only got worse. They substantiated that many parents are still overly involved in managing their kids’ lives, and we are doing them a disservice.
Top Ten Things Parents of College Freshmen Should Never Do
So, I asked my small sample of professors, parents, and students to give me some feedback on what they want parents of college freshmen (and beyond) to know and how we can do things to support our kids.
1. Talk to their professors.
I was a little shocked when I heard just how many parents of college students are reaching out to their children’s teachers. The college educators I spoke with said they receive at least one email or voice message a week from a parent to discuss a grade or missing assignment or to find out if their student is attending class.
According to one professor: “Not only is it against FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Acts), but my students need to take responsibility for their actions. I work hard to clearly present the expectations, grading system, and course requirements for my students. I am at office hours twice a week. I check my email and provide a phone number. If a student is struggling, they don’t need a parent to intervene. They need to work with their student to advocate for themselves. Students often have peers, advisors, RAs, and other support systems in place if they don’t understand how to approach a situation or need support. Encourage your student to utilize these before coming at a professor.”
Of course, each professor also said that if they feel their child has an extraordinary situation, they would welcome that information, such as a death in the family, an illness, or mental health concern, but leave the communication to the kids.
The three professors I spoke with said that it’s fine if you are your child’s proxy if you want to help them manage financial issues or help them navigate what sometimes are complex college portals, but leave the communication up to them.
Also, don’t pose as your kids using their email. Professors can often see through this and are not a fan.
2. Track your kids going to class.
One of my freshman daughters recently told me that a parent of a resident in her dorm calls her if she doesn’t see her phone moving to class on Life360. One day, the frantic mom even called her roommate’s phone because her daughter didn’t answer. It turned out that her professor canceled class that day because he was sick, and her daughter was in the shower.
Another student shared that his roommate’s parents called to wake him up every single day before his 8 a.m. class “just in case” he overslept.
I get it. College is expensive, and you may want to ensure you are getting value for your investment; however, if you can’t trust your students to get to class, perhaps they weren’t ready for college in the first place. Or, they may need to suffer some natural consequences to understand the importance.
If your child isn’t going to class, it will most likely be reflected in their first semester grades and how they talk about their experience. Set up expectations up front and let your student take ownership. If they aren’t doing their job, then it’s time you discuss the consequences.
3. Interfere in roommate problems.
One of my friends received a very awkward phone call from her son’s roommate’s parent one day. Apparently, things weren’t going smoothly, and the parents were very upset. My friend encouraged the boys to talk to their resident advisor and work things out independently. The problems seemed solvable to her, and she thought a third-party could help them figure it out effectively.
Unfortunately, the parents showed up at the dorm room one day to talk to my friend’s son, making a tough situation much, much worse. My friend was not surprised that when her son returned from Thanksgiving break, all his roommate’s stuff was gone without a word. He moved off campus to an apartment. Ironically, the boys patched it up a few months later when they joined the same club.
It is gut-wrenching when your child is in a tough situation, unhappy, and you feel helpless, but there is nothing that builds a kid’s self-esteem more than figuring out a problem on their own–whether they are eight years old or 18. Encourage your freshman to use all the resources available to them first before stepping in to solve it for them. It’s one thing to role-play and give advice, but meddling at this age often makes the problem much, much worse.
4. Be surprised about mistakes.
Remember, this is the first time your kid has been on their own. Yes, they might miss a class or two. Yes, they might stay out too late. Yes, they might not realize how much they need to study. It is natural for them to make some mistakes. That is part of the college experience.
5. Force them into a certain major.
My friend told me a story about a young man whose parents wanted him to be Pre-Law so badly to “meet his potential” that they only agreed to pay for college if he promised to attend law school. The student was majoring in history but trying to achieve a minor in marketing as he wanted a career in sports management.
While many of us do not use our college degrees like we thought we would, we’re typically postponing the inevitable when we discourage our kids from following their passions. Instead, we need to help our kids create a career path they will find both productive and satisfying.
Our kids should not become beholden to us for their path in life. Instead, we need to become their biggest cheerleaders in their pursuits.
6. Expect constant communication.
It is so hard to let go of our kids. Trust me, I feel parents on this. Letting go was hard for me, and I didn’t handle it well. (You may also like to read this post: The Momancholy Is Real After You Drop Your Child Off at College).
But sometimes, it’s not that they are not thinking of us but more enjoying where they are at, and that’s a great thing. What I often hear from parents is that they find some of their kids don’t enjoy talking on the phone, or feel they are too busy to do it often. They may not want to talk in a public place or in front of their roommate. They also may be enjoying their freedom and don’t want to justify how they are spending their time.
I recommend having a set time/day that fits into your child’s schedule where you have a check-in call each week. That is an extremely reasonable expectation. And if you get more than that, fabulous!
But if you don’t, be okay with it (of course, that changes if you have mental or physical health concerns.)
Also, don’t discount other forms of communication. I have a friend who plays online scrabble with her son, but only talks to him once a week. Another communicates more through social media. And when all else fails, send a picture of a pet in the family group chat. Remember, a heart on a photo is proof of life!
7. Talk about your student’s problems or complain too much in public social media groups.
I will never forget the post I saw in my daughter’s college Facebook parents’ group right before move-in day: “Can anyone tell me who monitors the curfew in the dorms? Is it the RA?”
I was so glad that the person who responded was extremely kind. I think the comment said something like this: “Your child is an adult now. They are responsible for getting home on their own. Welcome to this next phase of parenting adult kids. It’s on them now.”
While I think social media groups are great and such a useful way for people to communicate and share information (such as what dorm rooms look like or restaurant recs), sometimes I cringe at the level of personal detail I see parents putting in there (and I say this as a person who writes on social media for a living!)
A few things to keep in mind:
- These groups often include college administrators, faculty, and even students. It’s not hard to fake a name or log in as someone else, or sometimes faculty serve as moderators but only get involved if needed. Remember, you never know who will read your post.
- Be wary of discussing your child’s personal problems in these groups (or do so anonymously.) A friend shared that she saw a post seeking advice about handling a messy roommate that revealed a few too many details. The roommate’s mom was also in the group and posted a photo of the girls’ room, stating, “I don’t think it’s just my daughter who is the problem.” These groups are great resources for finding out information about the school and programs but be careful about talking about your child’s own experiences.
- Truth: many colleges have lists of problem students (and their parents). According to my friend, his colleagues share a list of students who often miss class with flimsy excuses, threaten teachers, appear volatile, etc. He shared that they do not do this because they don’t like their students but instead to protect themselves from overly litigious and involved parents. If you constantly complain and belittle the school and faculty in these groups, trust me, someone is taking notes and screenshotting these for their files.
- Your child may not want you discussing that they are lonely, stressed, overwhelmed, depressed, or struggling with their classmates’ parents. Remember, while these are groups for parents, it’s your child’s new home. If possible, try to seek out a source not affiliated with the school, post anonymously, or reach out to someone via direct message. I believe most parents want to be supportive, but we must protect our children’s privacy as well.
8. Plan family vacations during the school year.
All three professors stated that they receive an email a week about a vacation scheduled during the calendar year, returning late to school after break, or wanting to leave early.
According to my friend, “I am a reasonable person. I understand if there is a significant family occasion, interview opportunity, or school-related function. I don’t respond positively when a student says they can’t come to my first few classes because they misread the calendar and can’t get back from their vacation in time.”
Most colleges put out calendars far in advance. As parents, we need to respect these and not expect teachers to make accommodations because of our family vacations.
9. Solve all their problems.
If your child can’t get into a particular class, it’s on them to figure it out. If the food keeps running out in the cafeteria, encourage them to send an email to the dining hall manager. If there is something wrong with their dorm room, have them contact maintenance. Our kids need to learn how to solve their problems.
Many college kids are accepting of and expecting their parents to solve any problems because that is the way it has always been for them. Freshman year is a great time to cut the cord and let them figure things out on their own.
If they don’t want to be bothered to change their 8 a.m. class, that is on them. If they can live without a new light bulb in their dorm room, that is on them. If they miss the sign-up for something, that is on them. If they stay out too late and can’t get up for class, that is on them.
One professor stated that she hears a disturbing number of parents use the words “we” and “our” when discussing college. For example, “We are rushing X sorority,” or “Our dorm room doesn’t have great bathrooms.” The language you use matters. Remember whose experience this is.
10. Guilt or bribe them into coming home often.
If I could, I would have my kids live with me forever. Or, at least another few years. But the truth is, they are thriving at college, as are most kids.
If your teen needs a break and wants to come home, let them. However, don’t guilt them into leaving their new home just because you are lonely in yours. Try not to bribe them with meals or that you will do their laundry, either (although if they are home and you do these things, it is fine.)
Remember the end goal: we want to raise happy, healthy, and productive adults. They can only be these things if they have the confidence that they can care for themselves and handle what the world throws at them.
We can let them take on life–and let them know that they can always come home when needed.
Are you looking for more resources on how to help your child succeed at college?
This book, Go to Class: How to Succeed at College, is a great resource for parents and students. Go to Class: How to Succeed at College is the perfect gift for the college-bound student. The book is full of engaging tips about how to thrive at college. Go to Class provides authentic insider secrets from an experienced higher education professional.