Parenting a College Freshman from a Student's Perspective
Adapted from National Orientation Directors Association, Orientation Planning Manual (1994)
Your student, along with two million others, is about to enter a time at once exciting and frightening, a period of joy, pain, discovery, and disappointment. These students are beginning four years of their lives. They’ll leave a much different persons than they began.
You are entering this period with your son or daughter. You’ll experience the same happiness and defeats as they - second hand, but just as vividly or achingly.
The tips on the following pages are purposely subjective. They were written by a just-graduated student, based mostly on careful observations of mistakes and/or breakthroughs made by her parents and the parents of her friends.
RULE # 1 - Don’t Ask Them if They’re Homesick
The power of association can be a dangerous thing. (A friend once told me, “The idea of being homesick didn’t even occur to me, what with all the new things that were going on, until my Mom called one of the first weekends and asked ‘Are you homesick?’ Then it hit me.)
The first few days/weeks of school are activity-packed and friend-jammed, and the challenge of meeting new people and adjusting to new situations takes a majority of a freshman’s time and concentration. So, unless they’re reminded of it (by a well-meaning parent), they’ll probably be able to escape the loneliness and frustration of homesickness. And, even if they don’t tell you during those first few weeks, they do miss you.
RULE # 2 - Write (Even if They Don’t Write Back)
Although freshmen are typically eager to experience all the away-from-home independence they can in those first weeks, most are still anxious for family ties and the security those ties bring. This surge of independence may be misinterpreted by sensitive parents as rejection, but I’d bet that most freshmen (although 99% won’t ever admit it) would give anything for some news of home and family, however mundane it may seem to you. There’s nothing more depressing than a week of empty mailboxes, be they physical or email mailboxes. (Warning - don’t expect a reply to every letter/email you write. The you-write-one, they-write-one sequence isn’t always followed by college students, so get set for some unanswered correspondence.)
Make thoughtful decisions about what you share about problems or difficulties at home. Your student will want to hear about these things, and they deserve to be informed about family matters. But if you know they will worry yet not be able to help or change things, be deliberate about how much and in what depth you tell them. I am not suggesting keeping secrets, but rather sharing information yet conveying confidence that they can handle being told important/difficult information, and that you trust they will understand and make good decisions about continuing to focus on their studies
RULE # 3 - 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, with ulterior motives 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.
RULE # 4 - Expect Change (But Not Too Much)
Your student will change (either drastically within the first few months, slowly over four years or somewhere in between that pace). It’s natural, inevitable, and it 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 choices. An up-to-now wall-flower may become a fraternity sweetheart, a pre-med student may discover that biology is not her thing after all, or a high school radical may become a college egghead. You can’t stop change. You may not ever understand it, but it is within your power (and to you and your student’s advantage) to accept it.
Remember that your freshman will be basically the same person that you sent away to school, aside from such interest changes and personality revisions. Don’t expect too much, too soon. Maturation is not an instantaneous or over-night process, and you might well discover your freshman returning home with some of the habits and hang-ups, however unsophisticated, that you thought he/she had grown out of. Be patient.
RULE #5 - Don’t Worry (Too Much) About Frantic Phone Calls or Letters
Parenting can be a thankless job, especially during the college years. It’s a lot of give and only a little take.
Often when trouble becomes too much for a freshman to handle (a flunked test, ended relationship and shrunken t-shirt all in one day) the only place to turn, write or dial is home. Unfortunately, this is often the only time that urge to communicate is felt so strongly, so you never get to hear about the “A” paper, the new boyfriend, or domestic triumph.
In these crisis times your student can unload trouble or tears and, after the catharsis, return to routine, relieved and lightened, while you inherit the burden or worry.
Be patient with those nothing-is-going-right-I-hate-this-place phone calls or letters. You’re providing a real service as an advice dispenser, sympathetic ear, or punching bag. Granted, it’s a service that makes you feel lousy, but it works wonders for a frustrated student.
RULE #6 - Visit (But Not Too Often)
Visits by parents (especially when accompanied by shopping sprees and/or dinners out) are another part of the first-year events that freshmen are reluctant to admit liking, but would appreciate greatly. Be aware… pretended disdain of those visits is just another part of the first-year syndrome.
These visits give the student a chance to introduce some of the important people in both of his/her now important worlds (home and school) to each other. Additionally, it’s a way for parents to become familiar with (and, hopefully, more understanding of) their student’s new activities, commitments, and friends. Spur-of-the-moment surprises are usually not appreciated. (Preemption of a planned weekend of studying or other activities can have disastrous results). It’s usually best to wait for a pre-planned weekend to see your student and the school; that way you may even get to see a clean room. Remember to respect your student’s privacy when you visit. Don’t go through their closets, drawers, or refrigerators; don’t turn on their answering machines to listen to their messages.
RULE #7 - Do Not Tell Your Students That These Are The Best Years of Their Lives (They will figure it out later)
The freshman year (and the other three as well) can be full of indecisions, insecurities, disappointment, and, most of all, mistakes. They’re also full of discovery, inspiration, good times, and people, but, except in retrospect, it’s not the always the good that stands out.
It took awhile (and the help of some good friends) for me to realize that I was normal and that my afternoon movie/paperback novel perceptions of what college was all about were inaccurate. It took awhile for me to accept that being unhappy, afraid, confused, disliking people, and making mistakes (in other words, accepting me) were all part of the show, all part of this new reality, all part of growing up. It took awhile longer for my parents to accept it.
Any parent who believes that all college students get good grades, know what they want to major in, have activity-packed weekends, make thousands of close friends, and lead carefree, worry-free lives is wrong. So are the parents that think that college educated mean mistake-proof. Parents that perpetuate and insist upon the best years stereotype are working against their child’s already difficult self-development. Those that accept and understand the highs and lows of their student’s reality are providing the support and encouragement where it’s needed most.
RULE #8 - 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 of college was this: “I love you and want for you all the things that make you 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.
RULE #9 - Remember How Important Home is to Them
While they are going through these tremendous new experiences, changes, and challenges, home becomes important as a foundation they can count on. They need you to be there for them, and they need things to feel familiar when they come home. They have been telling friends all about you and their growing up years. They have been remembering their favorite meals and activities at home. Make sure the familiar still exists at home: Don’t redecorate their room, move their bedroom into the attic, or stop cooking. Even though they may not say it, coming home to the familiar and known is something special.
RULE # 10 - Try to Follow the First Nine Rules