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Advice to Parents of College Freshmen: Give Them Space

Parents everywhere are sending their kids off to college this week. An estimated 3 million Americans are enrolled as freshmen this fall, according to the American Council on Education. Interestingly, the average age of the undergraduate student is 26, and women make up 57 percent of the student body on today's college campuses.

Advice for parents of students fresh out of high school on how to handle this transition is plentiful. For today's parents, who have often hovered and tried to save their children from heartaches big and small, it can be difficult to let go. This can be especially true with cellphones and email. It's not like when I went to college in the dark ages of the '80s, when we had to wait for a land line at the end of the hall to be available to call home.

So, I wanted to share some ideas I ran across in The Tennessean about just how parents should communicate with their college freshman. It was part of a top 10 list of recommendations offered by Michael Gunter, a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. He has a unique perspective to offer having directed the living and learning communities program at Rollins and living with his wife and two young children in a residence hall with 184 first-year students for two years.

Some of his advice:

  • Don't call—at least, not that much. For that matter, don't email, Facebook, or Twitter much, either. In short, don't abuse the digital technology your parents never had. Sure, keep in touch from time to time, perhaps even weekly, but unless there is a serious problem, more than that is self-defeating.
  • Don't let your children call. If they constantly email or phone, they are not growing up. College is about learning to live on your own. Part of that process is learning from problems that inevitably arise. Don't shortchange your child this crucial development stage, painful as that may be.
  • Don't call us. If a panic call comes, be supportive, of course, but don't assume your child is right. You are customers purchasing a higher education service to a degree, but it's also more complicated. Here, the customer is not always right, as higher education is not simply a commodity to purchase. You must earn it, too. If your child is having difficulties, help them find help—but do not do this for them. Students need to be the one taking this initiative. After all, there is a dean of students instead of dean of parents for good reason.

Gunter has some good ideas. So, try to think before you pick up that phone or send off an email. This is the time for your child, who is now a young adult, to problem-solve on his or her own and establish independence. Easier said than done, I know. But parenting has never been easy—and it still isn't even after they've left home.

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