Growing Young Adults: What Parents Need to Know About Your Children at College

Of course, we all like to think that it is the sons and daughters of others who experiment or do foolish things. Remember, too, that you did not share everything with your parents.
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Following the publication of my Huffington Post columns on what students need to know about the college experience, I have been asked about what parents need to know.

1) Your son or daughter is in college as an individual, not as part of the family team. While you want to be supportive and give advice when asked, you are not captain or coach of your student's team. That role belongs to your offspring, namely the student enrolled in college.

If you have overly managed your child's high school career and created anxiety preceding and during the college admission process, this is your chance to redress prior mistakes and be encouraging without being overbearing.

Let your student, now a young adult, solve his or her own problems. If you have raised him or her well, he or she will have the confidence to make good decisions, but like all of us, your student will make mistakes and experience disappointments and learn from them. You need to encourage your son or daughter to remember the three R's--resilience, resolve, and resourcefulness--and perhaps practice them in regard to your college student rather than showing your own anxiety, disappointment, and frustration.

College students are young adults and need to take the initiative to solve roommate issues, housing problems, course registration, and challenging assignments. It may be hard to let go, but what college should be doing is turning adolescents into adults who make decisions, and if you intervene that will not happen. (I recommend Marshall Duke's "Starting College: A Guide for Parents: 2013").

2) As much as you want to share this experience, hovering over your daughter or son (what is known as being a helicopter parent) is not the best way to help her or him grow. I advise limiting calls and emails so that your student has a sense of being on his or her own. Giving occasional advice if asked is ok, but it is often best to hold your tongue and, especially, your desire to write emails every day or, as is the case with some parents, several times a day. While one rule does not fit all, calling more than once a week is excessive, and so is emailing more than a few times a week. To be omnipresent is not the best way to be either helpful or close.

But you do want to listen to your son or daughter to be sure your student is pursuing goals for the future and taking his or her academic work seriously. Too much talk about partying, homecoming, fraternity and sorority social life and not enough about courses is a warning sign. While extra-curricular activities are fun, and in some cases-- acting in plays, writing for the school newspaper, and, in rare cases, playing on college teams--are part of professional goals, you do need to notice when these activities begin to take precedence over academics.

One of the best ways to share the college experience is visiting when your son or daughter is competing on varsity teams, acting in a play, or being part of a musical performance. But on these occasions, it is important not to give too much advice to him or her, or worse yet, any advice to the coach or the theatre or musical director. These are the very occasions for parental restraint.

3) However, you know your daughter or son and if he or she is showing signs of depression or anxiety or panic--rather than the usual complaining about how much he/she has to do or how his/her roommate is inconsiderate, etc.-- then you should contact the college's psychological services or the advising center. Unless you feel it is a life-threatening emergency, I would not rush to campus.

4) As much as you are tempted, do not do your son's or daughter's academic work. It is time to let go. At the same time, your young student may want to share the excitement of his or her academic work. Especially if the student takes the initiative, discussion of course material and books the student is reading for his or her courses can be mutually satisfying and may be helpful to your child. But this sharing is different from doing the student's assignments. In more cases than one might think, the parents have been helping their student in high school, even doing the student's homework and editing their papers.

A few years ago I taught a freshman who had attended a private day school and had had so much help from parents--who also provided tutors for courses in which she was an A student-- that doing her own work was a major adjustment. In a different case, I had an Honors student who let her father edit her thesis after I had signed off on it; the father systematically turned active voice into passive and made other "corrections" that resulted in a lower grade than the one she would have received.

5) The first thing to be aware of is that you will not know as much as you think you know. No matter how often you email or phone your student, she or he-- not you--is in control of the information flow. If the student is having trouble in classes, you may or may not be told, but if that trouble derives from cutting classes, not doing homework, or failing to study for exams or do the required work on papers, you may not be told at all. Such problems can be caused by depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that the student may be reluctant to share.

Nor will your child fully share his or her experiments with alcohol, consensual sexual behavior, illegal substances, all-nighters, hazing, or what you may think of as simple foolishness like a group howling at the moon during finals or running ('streaking") across the quad with other students while wearing little or no clothing. Even students who commute and live at home are not going to share all their experiences with you.

Of course, we all like to think that it is the sons and daughters of others who experiment or do foolish things. Remember, too, that you did not share everything with your parents.

You need to be attentive to behavior that affects your children's' physical and mental health, including binge drinking--the most common form of foolish behavior that can lead to bad decisions about sex. You need to be alert to your student's failure to give proper attention to course work because that can lead to academic failure and suspension.

6) When your son or daughter returns from college, especially during the first few breaks from classes, he or she will be different and more independent and, while this occasionally will be off-putting, this change is in most cases desirable. Warmly welcoming your offspring and celebrating holidays together will create important continuity. But trying to recreate during these visits what once was is a mistake because your student has changed.

Moreover, expecting your daughter or son to spend the entire break with parents is another mistake because your offspring will want to catch up with high school friends and perhaps his or her college friends if they live nearby. If your student went to boarding school, you will be more used to these developments.

By the time your student is a senior, he or she may want to return to school early or visit friends rather than spend four weeks between terms with you, and you should consider this too as part of the process of becoming an independent adult.

7) If your daughter or son is spending over her or his budget, and you are funding or partially funding college, you certainly have the right to express your concerns, since you are a financial partner. To a large extent, you have to trust your offspring and rely on his or her judgment. But on occasion students, usually males, do get involved in costly foolishness like online gambling, and you need to question expenditures that seem excessive or inexplicable.

In many cases, particularly for freshmen, it is a good idea to have the student use a credit card for which you are co-owner and to check the expenditures.

8) Here is a site that further comments on the issues I have been discussing College Parent Central (although be aware that this site advertises "advice" products and may be motivated by commercial interests). Another site is: Campus ESP.

Sending your son or daughter to college should be an exhilarating experience, but it involves maturity and poise on your part. You need to restrain you desire to make everything right, fix every problem, or micro-manage your student's life. You want your college student to be independent and, if it is your only child or last child to leave home, you do not want to be compensating for your own empty nest issues.

Daniel R. Schwarz has a book in press with Wiley-Blackwell on the undergraduate experience entitled How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning. Author of the recent Reading the European Novel to 1900 and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century.

He blogs on higher education and the media for the Huffington Post. He can be reached at and followed on twitter at and

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