How to Parent College-Aged Kids

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Hint: You should not remind them to do their homework

I am sitting at my desk, multi-tasking, gum cracking, Windows popping, when from the hallway outside my door I hear, “Moooooooooom?” The proverbial needle scratches across the record album and everything freezes. The problem? I am at my office desk in Drexel University’s English Department and the bellow is coming from my daughter, a freshman at Drexel this year.

Even though I went through this two years ago, with my older daughter who is now a junior, I am not used to this blending of roles. The older girl was in my office a lot in the first half of her freshman year. Sometimes she wanted to just sit on my couch between classes; sometimes she asked questions about how to handle different situations. A few times she came to my office in tears.

Here’s the thing, as an English professor, I am used to handling students’ tears, but they know it’s inappropriate to sob on my couch, even as they do so. (Maybe other disciplines get a lot of tears, too, but I think it’s the sharing and the poetry that bring them to us.) I know my daughters respect my position and are aware of my responsibilities, but I sometimes think that they behave as if my presence on campus is just to make sure they’re ok.

I unlocked my office door on the first day of fall term only to see my daughter sitting at my desk and logged into my computer. Now, I love her visits, but … this was troubling. I was actually looking forward to being in my campus office again and there was my daughter, conflating my worlds, warming up my chair, leaving her apple core behind.

A few times, she has brought college friends home unannounced. I’m thinking this isn’t fair either. What if this student later takes a course of mine and the first time he or she has met me I am wearing boxer shorts and a t-shirt that makes a sexual pun?

This reminds me of when my kids were very young. One time, I was running out the door, already late for something somewhere, and I had a diaper bag, my teaching bag, my Painted Bride Quarterly bag, and a small purse on the kitchen table. As I ran past the table, I went to grab the right bag, and I thought, “Who am I?”

My life is far less fragmented now that they are older. I carry one bag. I no longer must suffer the awkwardness of pulling a sippy cup out of my pocket as I speak in front of a class. (Yes, that really happened.) I had my kids when I was fairly young, and I am happy that I am starting a new phase of our relationship when I still feel fairly young. My pride knows no bounds when other instructors meet them and remark on their grace and beauty and wit.

I already know that one day I will miss this period of our lives, being surprised by their faces, meeting them for lunch. But, it is still difficult when they text me, “Are you in your office?” and “in” assumes “available.” I was speaking to the younger one about all of this and she said, “I guess you’re like our watering hole.”

She saw my face. She changed her mind. She tried other metaphors, starting with Mother Lion (too cliche) and working somehow to “wave pool,” which she couldn’t really make work. Hayley will follow the same trajectory as my older daughter. Her visits will get less and less frequent as she will make more and more friends, and yes, I will often miss opening the door to find her there, but I will also feel relief: she will be fine and I can be my “professor self.”

Here’s what I know: I am not a “helicopter” parent. I know a mother who watches the surveillance cams at her child’s school, for hours, hoping he will randomly walk past the camera’s corner. I know a mother who requests her college-age children’s syllabi, puts exam and project dates in her own calendar, and sends her children reminders. I know a mother who checks her kid’s debit card daily, and then calls him and questions 3 a.m. pizza purchases. My daughters are on the same campus as me, and I don’t even know what classes they are taking. I very rarely bump into them on campus; we have to make lunch dates.

Keeping my thoughts along the lines of aviation, I decided I want to be one of those guys on the landing strips at the airport, with the flags. I am on the ground, and they come see me when they need something and I help guide them, but they are still operating the plane and flying on their own. I decided that was a lot of words, and surely those flag guys at the airport must have a title. After unproductive googling, I contacted my air-traffic controller cousin and this is what he wrote back:

“That position is called a ‘Ramp Agent.’ They do everything from guiding the plane into its gate, loading and unloading bags, cleaning the inside of the cabin, and just about anything else needed to get a plane ‘turned around’ and ready for its next flight.”

That sounds about right.

***This is a slightly revised version of an article originally in, which then got expanded for Follow me for more on the topic of Ramp Agent Parenting—my son is now a freshman and I have a lot more to say!