Parenting a College Freshman
From a Student's Perspective
Your student, along with two million others, is about to enter a time at once exciting and frightening, a period of joy, pain, discovery and disappointment. These students are beginning four years of their lives they'll leave as much different persons than they began.
And, like it or not, you're entering this period with your son or daughter. You'll experience the same happiness and defeats as they - second hand, but just as vividly or achingly.
If you don't believe me, ask my Mom. She watched and waited and worried through four years of ups and downs and mediocres. She patiently accepted my progression and my regressions. She tried, and sometimes failed to understand my way of thinking and doing and being.
And, maybe because of her, maybe in spite of her, I left college after four years a much different person than I'd begun - a much happier person.
So, my advice is: watch and wait and worry and accept and understand. Your children will be happier for your efforts. So will you.
Of course, no one can insure that you'll completely survive your child' first year at college, but there are some guidelines that might help you make it with minimum loss of sanity and a maximum strengthening of your new relationship.
The suggestions on the following pages are:
A. Purposely subjective;
B. Written by a just graduated student who, therefore, thinks she knows everything about college and, therefore, doesn't;
C. Based mostly on careful observations of mistakes and or breakthroughs made by her parents and the parents of her friends.
At most, they'll prepare you to deal effectively with some predictable first year conflicts. At least, they'll make you think about your reactions to them and that can't hurt you.
Bits and Pieces
(advice, inspiration, reflections, myth dispellations and other words of wisdom for parents of soon-to-be college freshman)RULE # 1 Don't Ask Them if They're Homesick
The power of association can be a dangerous thing (A friend once told me "the idea of being homesick didn't even occur to me, what with all the new things that were going on, until my mom called one of the first weekends and asked 'Are you homesick?' Then it hit me.")
The first few days/weeks of school are activity-packed and friend-jammed and the challenge of meeting new people and adjusting to new situations takes a majority of a freshman's time and concentration. So, unless they're reminded of it (by a well-meaning parent) they'll probably be able to escape the loneliness and frustration of homesickness.
And, even if they don't tell you during those first few weeks, they do miss you.RULE # 2
Write (Even if They Don't Write Back)
Although freshman are typically eager to experience all the away-from-home independence they can in those first few weeks, most are still anxious for family ties and security those ties bring. This surge of independence may be misinterpreted by sensitive parents as rejection, but I'd bet that most freshman (although 99% won't ever admit it) would give anything for some news of home and family, however mundane it may seem to you.
There's nothing more depressing than a week of empty mailboxes. (Warning - don't expect a reply to every letter you write - one sequence isn't always followed by college students, so get set for some unanswered correspondence.)RULE # 3 Ask Questions (But Not Too Many)
College freshman are "cool" (or so they think) and have a tendency to resent interference with their newfound lifestyle, but most still desire the security of knowing that someone is still interested in them. Parental curiosity can be obnoxious and alienating or relief-giving and supportive depending on the attitudes of the persons involved. "I have-a-right-to-know" tinged questions, with ulterior motives or the nag should be avoided. However, honest inquiries and other "between friends" communication and discussion will do much to further the parent-freshman relationship.RULE # 4 Expect Change (But Not Too Much)
Your student will change (either drastically within the first months, slowly over four years or somewhere in between that pace). It's natural, inevitable, and it can be inspiring and beautiful. Often, it's a pain in the neck.
College and the experiences associated with it can affect changes in social, vocational and personal behavior and choices. An up-to-now wall-flower may become a fraternity sweetheart, a pre-med student may discover that biology's not her thing after all, or a high school radical may become a college egghead.
You can't stop change, you may not ever understand it, but it is within your power (and to you and your student's advantage) to accept.
Remember that your freshman will be basically the same person that you sent away to school, aside from such interest changes and personality revisions. Don't expect too much, too soon. Maturation is not an instantaneous or over-night process and you might well discover your freshman returning home with some of the habits and hang-ups, however unsophisticated, that you thought he/she had "grown out of." Be patient.
RULE # 5Don't Worry (too much) about manic-depressive phone calls or letters
Parenting can be a thankless job, especially during the college years. It's a lot of give and only a little take.
Often when troubles become too much for a freshman to handle (a flunked test, ended relationship and shrunken T-shirt all in one day) the only place to turn, write or dial is home. Often, unfortunately, this the only time, that urge to communicate is felt so strongly, so you never get to hear about the "A" paper, the new boyfriend or the domestic triumph.
In these "crisis" times your student can unload troubles or tears and, after the catharsis, return to routine, relieved and lightened, while you inherit the burden of worry.
Be patient with those nothing-is-going-right-I-hate-his-place phone calls or letters. You're providing real service as an advice dispenser, sympathetic ear or punching bag. Granted, it's a service that makes you feel lousy, but it works wonders for a frustrated student. Like I said before, parenting can be a thankless job.RULE # 6 Visit (But Not Too Often)
Visits by parents (especially when accompanied by shopping sprees and-or dinners out) are another part of the first-year events that freshman are reluctant to admit liking, but would appreciate greatly. And, pretended disdain of those visits is just another part of the first year syndrome.
These visits give the students a chance to introduce some of the important people in both of his her now-important worlds (home and school) to each other. Additionally, it's a way for parents to become familiar with (and, hopefully, more understanding of ) their students' new activities, commitments and friends.
Spur-of-the-moment "surprises" are usually not appreciated. (Preemption of a planned weekend of studying or other disastrous results) It's usually best to wait for Mom or Dad's Day weekend to see your student and the school; that way you may even get to see a clean room.RULE # 7
Do Not Tell Your Students That "These Are The Best Years of Their Lives"
Freshman year (and the other three as well) can be full of indecisions, insecurities, disappointments, and most of all mistakes. They're also full of discovery, inspiration, good times and people but, except in retrospect, it's not the good that stands out. It took some while (and the help of some good friends) for me to realize that I was normal and that my afternoon movie/paperback novel perceptions of what college were all about were inaccurate. It took a while for me to accept that being unhappy, afraid, confused, disliking people and making mistakes (in other words, accepting me) were all part of the show, all part of this new reality, all part of growing up.
It took a while longer for my parents to accept it. Any parent who believes that all college students get good grades, know what they want to major in, have always activity-packed weekends, thousands of close friends and lead carefree, worry-free lives, are wrong. So are the many parents that think that college-educated means mistake-proof. Parents that perpetrate that insist upon the "best years" stereotype is working against their child's already diffcult self-development. Those that accept and understand the highs and lows of their student's reality are providing the support and encouragement where it's needed most.RULE # 8 Trust Them
Finding oneself is a diffcult enough process without feeling that the people whose opinion you respect most are second-guessing your own second-guessing.
One of the most important things my mom ever wrote me in my four years at college was this: "I love you and I want for you all the things that make you the happiest; and I guess you, not I, are the one who knows best what those things are."
She wrote that during my senior year. If you're smart you'll believe it, mean it, and say it now.