Dos and Don’ts of Parenting a College Student

(or, how to make sure you get invited to your child’s graduation)

As a parent, we know that it can be sending your son or daughter off to college can be stressful and a little bit scary. We also know that their college years are where your son or daughter will grow from the teenager you leave at a residence hall their freshman year to a fully-capable adult ready to take on the world. It is in that spirit that we offer some suggestions on what you can do (and not do) to help your child grow in the ways they need to during their time in Tuscaloosa.

Things to Do

Limit calls, FaceTime, Skype, etc. One of the great things about being the parent of a college student in the 21st century is that, when you start to miss the sound of your child’s voice, not only can you hear it on demand but you can even see their face. And, we’ll let you in on a secret, they appreciate that as much as you do.

However, as with most things, this, too, is best in moderation. Remember, whenever you call (or FaceTime, or Skype, or however you choose to communicate with) your child, you’re taking them away from some other part of their new life in Tuscaloosa. Maybe that’s studying, but it could also be an extracurricular activity, a campus event, or just hanging out with their friends.

What we’ve found is that our most successful students have a regular time no more than once a week that they plan to talk with their parents. This lets them arrange the rest of their schedule around that time, and allows them to be fully present in whatever they’re doing. Obviously there are exceptions – big life events (both good and bad), emergencies, and the like – but if you’re just calling to check in, find a time that works for both of you and stick to it.

Let them have their space. For their entire life so far, there’s been very little you don’t know about your son or daughter – where they are, who they’re with, what they’re doing, and so forth. In college, though, you won’t (and shouldn’t) know much of that. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first, but part of the growing they’ll do in college is learning to make their own choices and live with the consequences. That may well mean that they oversleep their 8am English class and fail a quiz as a result, but we promise it’s not the end of the world.

Let them have their freedom when they’re at home. We’ll go ahead and warn you, Christmas Break of freshman year is always a particularly tense time for students and their parents. Students have had a chance to get used to the freedom of living on their own, and you’re still used to them having a curfew. Set some expectations up front, but remember that they’ve survived on their own so far, and they’ll continue to do so when they’re back home.

Let them plan their own breaks. Some of the closest relationships your son or daughter forms in college will be during times when classes aren’t even in session. Whether it’s spending spring break at the beach, fall break at a cabin they’ve rented with friends, or taking advantage of a canceled Friday class to take a spontaneous road trip, let your son or daughter decide how they want to spend their breaks (with obvious exceptions for traditional family gatherings such as at Thanksgiving and Christmas). 

Let them know you care. We’ll talk in just a moment about how not to be overbearing, but your student wants to know you care about and are interested in what’s happening in their life. When they make an offhand comment about being worried about a class or a relationship, don’t push the issue but let them know you’re there for them whenever they need to talk. Trust us, even though they might not be ready right away, they’ll remember that you made the offer.

Send care packages. A well-timed care package right before a big midterm or finals week can make a huge difference for your son or daughter. You can even get creative here – order some Insomnia Cookies, for instance, and not only will your student love it, but it can be a great treat for their roommates or friends as well.

And, if you’d like to support Bama Wesley and send a care package to your student, we offer exam care packages every finals week. Send us your email address and we’ll let you know when orders open up.

Things Not to Do

Have them home every weekend. Especially if you live near Tuscaloosa, it’s going to be tempting to have your son or daughter back home regularly. Especially when they start getting homesick about a month into the semester (because trust us, they will), your instinct is going to be to bring them home, even if just for a weekend.

However, when you bring your son or daughter home, they miss out on the non-academic campus life that happens on the weekend and over breaks. Moreover, when they’re not on campus, they’re not building the relationships and finding the community that will be with them for the rest of their time on campus. We suggest that you strongly encourage your son or daughter to not come home until at least Thanksgiving Break their first semester – yes, it will be hard, but it’ll be worth it when they find their “adopted family” on campus.

Fight their battles. Inevitably, at some point your son or daughter is going to call you in tears because they failed (or at least had a close call) on a test or assignment. Your first instinct may be to call or email the professor to plead their case. Resist that urge. For one thing, it’s both illegal (under the Federal Educational Right to Privacy Act, or FERPA) and, in most cases, counterproductive. More importantly, though, for the rest of their life, your son or daughter will have to fight their own battles. College is their chance to learn how to do this, whether that means asking a professor for help or realizing they made a mistake and learning from it.

Micromanage. As we’ve already mentioned, part of how students are formed during their college years is through learning to make their own mistakes and live with the consequences. You’re going to be tempted to ask them about their grades, their relationships, and how, exactly, they spent last weekend. If they volunteer that information that’s fantastic, and cause for celebration that they want to have that relationship with you. If and when they don’t, though, don’t push the issue. They’ll come to you when they’re ready, and your relationship will be better for it when you let it happen on their terms.

Drop in unannounced. Sometimes, it can be a special occasion for you to drop in and make a surprise visit to your son or daughter. More often, though, it upends their schedule and probably keeps them from something they need to be doing. If you are planning a visit, give them a heads up and don’t be offended when they say it’s not a good time.

Overreact. At some point, your student will have a (real or imagined) crisis. Maybe that’s failing a quiz, or breaking up with that boyfriend/girlfriend that was definitely “the one”, or even something more serious like fracturing their wrist playing intramural flag football. When that happens, don’t panic, and definitely don’t start questioning whether they need to come home from school. Offer them support and guidance, but let them handle the situation on their own (and, by the way, remember they have a support system in Tuscaloosa that you may know little about that’s looking after them).

Further Reading

To read more about ways to help set some healthy boundaries while your son or daughter is in college, we suggest the following: