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Freshman Year: A Time to Soar

Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2008

You've done it! You've guided your college bound offspring through the final details of high school, overseen graduation festivities from a respectful distance, and signed over a significant portion of your savings to the college of your child's choice. You've shopped for sheets and towels, arranged flights or downloaded Mapquest directions, and arranged a final family dinner so your young collegian can say goodbye to Grandma and Aunt Sue. You've recovered from the stress of the college application process and feel that you should be enjoying a quiet respite before you have to say farewell at the dorm door. And yet, there's the nagging feeling that you've forgotten something.

You're not alone. When my sister, Ellen, one of the most conscientious mothers I know, was preparing to send her first child to college, she spent most of the summer planning, organizing and orchestrating. With the help of her lists and charts, it did not seem likely that Ellen would forget anything. Mail medical forms? Done. Talk about sex, drugs and finances? Done. Shop, buy new suitcases, and pack? Done. And yet Ellen was sure she was forgetting something.

Move-in day finally arrived. After loading half of Jeffrey's worldly possessions into his dorm room, the family headed to a local restaurant. Engrossed in the bustle of his new home, Jeffrey stepped off the curb, oblivious to an oncoming truck. As Ellen pulled him to safety she realized, "Of course! I forgot to teach him to cross the street."

Despite what his mother viewed as her failing, Jeffrey survived his four years in college, never again repeating his near run-in with Philadelphia traffic. His mother had prepared Jeffrey well, but ultimately had to let him figure out some of life's challenges for himself.

Newspapers and magazines have made headlines with stories about 'helicopter parents', those moms and dads who hover over their children, allegedly controlling and micromanaging things that their children should be able to handle on their own. Colleges, while criticizing those parents and blaming them for everything that is wrong with today's generation of young people, subtly encourage this behavior in the name of customer service. Special orientation sessions for parents and Offices of Parent Affairs send the message to parents that colleges are eager for their input and involvement. On one of my recent college visits, the president of a small liberal arts college boasted that he gives parents the number for the direct line to his office. Talk about an invitation to call!

With all this talk about helicopter parents, it is not surprising that non-helicopters worry that perhaps they may not be doing enough for their child. After all, if Joshua's mom is calling the college to make sure that Josh's history professor appreciates his quirky way of writing about the Civil War, perhaps that's the right thing to do. And yet, they know it's not. But maybe it is.

Steven Thomas, Director of Admissions at Colby College encourages parents to be booster rockets rather than helicopters. "Get your kids into shape," he urges, "send them into orbit, watch them reach for the stars and then fall gently back to earth as your kids soar on their way."

'Booster rocket' is not nearly as dramatic a term as 'helicopter parent', and you are not likely to see it splashed in the headlines during the upcoming college admissions cycle. It is, however, a helpful way to think about your role in your child's transition to college and about what you want to accomplish in the few remaining weeks before your child leaves for college.

Students who soar in college know why they are there and what they want to accomplish. They know that they are responsible for the choices they make and that their choices will impact future options. They know how to maximize opportunities and how to turn challenges into learning experiences. They are able to use their time wisely, scheduling time for both work and play or relaxation, while leaving themselves open to the serendipity of college life. They know the importance of building relationships that will help them grow personally and professionally. They avoid people whose influence will be detrimental to them. They give to others and allow others to give to them. They are willing to try new things, understanding that college offers opportunities they have not encountered before. They take reasonable risks, while keeping themselves healthy and safe. They recognize when they need the help of others and know how to access that help. They acknowledge their feelings of excitement, anxiety, loneliness or fear, knowing that they are not alone in these feelings. They are ready to leave the comfort of family and friends, secure that when they return the people who are most important to them will welcome them back.

It is the rare college freshman who heads off to college as finely packaged as the previous paragraph suggests. As much as conscientious parents would like to use the final weeks of summer to teach all that they would like their child to know, it cannot be done. Parents need to trust that they have been getting their child in shape for college for a very long time. The irony of parenthood is that we spend a lifetime loving, teaching, nurturing and getting our child "in shape" so that we can launch them into orbit. The final weeks of summer are the countdown, and there is time for just a quick final check before you deliver your offspring to their launch pad -- college.

As a parent, you retain the right to offer advice, but let your child know that while you expect that he will listen respectfully and consider what you say, you accept that he has the right to make his own decisions. Make sure that your child knows that you are proud of his achievements and trust that he will do his best to make well-considered and wise choices. His choices may not always be the ones that you prefer, but learning to deal with consequences is an important part of growing up. Convey that you will support your child as he deals with the consequences of his choices, but the consequences will be his to deal with, not yours.

Decide with your child how you will continue to communicate, now that your child will not be living in your home. Cell phones offer the opportunity for constant contact, but that may not be in the best interest of either your child or you. Part of the value of the college experience involves the opportunity for your child to develop increased independence, and it is hard for that to happen when the cell phone serves as an umbilical cord. Learning to let go can be difficult for parents too, as they lose touch with the daily happenings of their child. It takes restraint to keep from checking in to make sure your child is happy and doing well in college. Consider it your gift when you allow your child to decide when the right time is right to share experiences.

Trust that you have given your child the tools to deal with adversity and difficulty. The college president who offered his phone number to parents, though well-meaning, was encouraging parents to micromanage their child's education. Easy access to the college president encourages calls for less than critical reasons. A difficult professor? A truly obnoxious roommate? A discipline issue? An early morning class for a student who has difficulty getting out of bed? These are facts of adult life, and students who manage these challenges themselves develop the skills that will serve them well in the work world. Parents who intercede on behalf of their child deprive their child of the chance to grow and mature.

The final check involves making sure that, as your child moves away from the daily support of your home and family, he knows what the support system is that the college has created for him. Colleges do not want students to fail and they have created multiple levels of support. Before you launch your child, make sure that she knows where on campus to go if she needs academic, personal, psychological or medical support. In most cases, the resident advisor in the student's dorm is the first line of support and the easiest to access. Professors and academic advisors are also first line supporters. Academic support centers, student health and counseling centers are available to all students. At some colleges these services are located in remote spots to preserve students' privacy. Other colleges, in an attempt to normalize the experience, have moved their support centers to a more central location. The goal is to make support accessible and to let students in need of help see that lots of other students access these services. Appropriate deans are available to students when their concerns cannot be adequately addressed by other services on campus. It is the student's job to ask for help. It is the parents' job to make sure that their child knows that mom and dad support their efforts to grow in independence and maturity, and trust that their child has the capacity to do so. It is the parents' job to prepare their child well and then watch as their child soars toward the stars.



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