I will never forget the last time a parent contacted me about their child’s performance in my course. I was teaching at a large state university, and one of my students was a football player at another college who was trying to raise his failing GPA by taking a summer course he mistakenly thought would be an “easy A.” When he realized that my combined upper division undergraduate/graduate course was not only not an “easy A” but actually required substantive intellectual work, he stopped handing in work or showing up to class. His father called me at home to “discuss” the situation. He said, “If my son does not pass your course, he will lose his football scholarship and we won’t be able to afford to keep him in school.”
I do not respond well to sentimental appeals, and I especially do not tolerate emotional blackmail from my students, let alone their parents. I was angry that this father would call me at my home and essentially make me the linchpin of his son’s future, rather than deal with the failures of his own child. I told the father that not only was I under absolutely no obligation to award his son passing grades, but that I was not even legally allowed to discuss his son’s situation with him due to FERPA laws, which guard student privacy once they turn 18.
This incident underscored for me how much things have really changed since I was in college over twenty years ago. Before FERPA, I used to collect my term papers from boxes outside of my professor’s office doors, rifling through the piles of my classmates’ work with increasing anxiety until I found mine and saw the grade. I could find out my score on an exam in a large course by reading the grades, posted by Social Security number, on my professor’s door. My parents would no sooner have called one of my professors than they would have taken my exams for me. They understood that I was an adult and responsible for my own success or failure in the world.
But the world can be a rough place, and the natural desire of parents to protect their children as much as possible from disappointment, failure, and heartbreak is commendable. I get that. Nonetheless, the role of the parent in their child’s college education should be limited. I am not just talking about the notorious “helicopter parents” who hover over every aspect of their children’s lives from birth and prevent them from developing coping skills, independence, and their own identities—that’s a different species of parent altogether. Rather, I am advising all parents that college is a unique period in a young person’s life, when they can explore who they are and who they want to become—but you need to let them do that.
That does not mean, though, that there is not an important role for parents as their children leave the home and embark on their own independent lives at college. Here are four important ways that parents can create positive and effective contributions to their children’s college experience, whether they have moved to a campus or remain at home:
- Financial Coordinator: No, this is not a fun job. Much like many aspects of parenting, this may be thankless and tedious work. But it just may be one of the most important ways you can influence and assist your child. As a parent, you probably have more financial knowledge and experience, and the tangle of applications for financial aid, scholarships, and loans can be daunting to anyone, especially a teenager. There are many resources available to assist you, including the helpful guide offered by College Board. But don’t make the mistake of taking care of it all by yourself. Make sure you do this with your child so that he or she can learn necessary financial survival skills. Then, you can act as adviser and allow them to become more responsible for their education finances as they move further along in their academic career.
- Learning Advocate: It is important to make sure that your child takes advantage of all the support services offered at their college or university, especially if they have a learning disability or other special needs. Being your child’s advocate does not mean intervening between your child and the university. It does not mean you should call, e-mail, or write to your child’s professors. They are not allowed to speak to you about your child’s grades, course performance, or personal life. Instead, it means helping your child prepare for their college responsibilities appropriately, and checking in with them to make sure that they keep up with their work, get the assistance they need, and continue to feel confident about their progress in school. The U.S. Department of Education offers helpful tips for doing all of this.
- Health Monitor: College students are notoriously lax about self-care, and there is a lot for parents to worry about. Studies show that from STDs to poor eating habits and fatigue, college students tend to ignore symptoms, pushing themselves through exams, late-night parties, and other distractions, until it is too late. They then develop poor habits that can last a lifetime. Check out the guidelines to college student health offered by the Center for Disease Control and explore the health care and health insurance options offered by your child’s college or university.
- Listener and Coach: These kids today! Sometimes parents are not the only ones who want to punish them when they skip class and then want to know why they failed an exam, spend more time texting than studying, etc. But as tempting as it may be to reprimand or just ignore the behavior, remember that your child is not really a child anymore. As a young adult, your college student child may not respond well to such techniques. Instead, the most important thing you can do to ensure that your college student child continues to succeed is to be there. Listen without judgment or prejudice, and offer your advice or counsel only when asked. This has a remarkable affect: in time, you may find that they actually start looking for and following your advice!
Of course, there may be times when you do need to intervene and draw the line. If your child shows signs of drug or alcohol abuse, is withdrawn and distant, shows physical injury or other signs of abuse, investigate immediately. The Residential Life office at the University of New Hampshire offers useful guidelines for parents on when to intervene.