As our kids head off to college we know our relationship with them is going to change, but how it will change is not at all clear. I’ll admit to being scared out of my mind when I sent my first son off the college. We had spoken almost every day of his life and now I knew that was going to end. Like most college kids of my era, I talked to my parents once a week keeping the call short and, in the back of my mind, I think that is what I feared the most.
Here is the good news. Most kids talk (and I use that term very loosely) to their parents far more than once a week. With a phone glued to the palm of their hand, communication can be relentless. And, considering that by the end of high school my senior’s responses had often dwindled down to grunts, or flying in the door shouting the words, “Hi, goodbye, I am leaving again.” I may have heard more from them when they were in college.
But this is one mom’s experience and to find out more on how families can seek constructive ways to keep close to their freshmen, without hovering, interfering or stalking, we sat down with Dean Avis E. Hinkson of Barnard College. With a wealth of experience and 2500 undergraduates in her midst, she brings insight into the topic of what makes freshmen thrive and how can parents support that process without leaving their fingerprints all over their kids lives.
Here are Dean Hinkson suggestions:
Learn How to Ask For Help
One of the most important ways a parent can prepare their kids to leave, Dean Hinkson explains, is getting their teen comfortable with asking for help. Freshmen are in a new setting and there is much they need to learn that is far from intuitive. The only way to thrive in this setting is to ask questions and sometimes ask for help. Your kid may have been a star in high school, but sometime during freshman year your student will need logistical, academic or even medical help. Dean Hinkson suggests parents have a conversation and explain to their teen that this “really is a shift.” According to her, “It is not about intimidating them or scaring them. It really is about preparing them.”
“Many of them, if not all of them have been the superstars at their high school. They were leading the charge. They were the ones answering all the questions as opposed to asking. This may be the first time they need to ask for help and it may be uncomfortable. But, no matter how brilliant they are, there is a point at which being in a new environment and alone, in the sense that their parents are not with them, that they are going to need to ask for help from somebody. Are they leaving your house with the ability to ask for help? We all have to know how to ask for help.”
It’s important for families to come to an understanding on how they will communicate and relate once their teen has left home, Dean Hinkson explains. Every family has their own way of communicating and of dealing with challenges and joys. It’s important to spend some time, real quality time, during senior year in high school talking about what your expectations are for your relationship once your teen goes to college. “I tend to encourage parents to lay back and let the student contact them. And I help in the first night of Barnard orientation when I tell them, ‘I need every last one of you to call your mother because she can’t call me first’ and they all start laughing but they take out their phone and text something.”
There are families who check in every day with their freshman, Dean Hinkson says, and kids who text their parents ‘good night’ every night but what is important is that families find what works of them and remain flexible as the pattern of communication evolves. If you expect your kid to send you a text every night at 10 PM, understand that life happens, especially in college, and that even if this is the expectation you set up at the beginning, it may not last.
Should You Phone the College, Ever?
One of the hardest decisions for parents is to determine, when they are concerned, if they should call their teen’s college. Despite the caricature of the ever-present parent ready to swoop down and fix any problem, parents often hope their teens will be able to deal with their own problems. On the other hand, no parent wants to ignore a serious issue when their freshman is not thriving.
Dean Hinkson reminds parents that they know their kid best and if they find that their student is not engaging in the life of the college in any meaningful way or is overly quiet and withdrawn after weeks into the semester, it is not unreasonable to speak to an academic or resident advisor.
“If you are concerned about your daughter’s health or her ability to fully participate in the life of the college, those are reasons to call.” But she cautions, just because something did not go the way either a student or parent expected, is not a reason to call. Parent all too easily forget that a dean is responsible for thousands of students and the parent, just one. Their views on a situation, because of this difference, may not always align. The job of parent is to provide support and as needed consultation and coaching. “The goal is that a student should feel at home here and have the resources of both her parent and her advisor.”
She reminds parents that for most students there is a real period of adjustment during freshman year. Parents should express their concern if they hear a student does not have any connections, friends or activities, if the student only seems to go to class, or worse, is missing class. “The red flags to me are, you know your child, so when you feel like this is not who they are, you should tell us that,” Dean Hinkson explains.
Which Freshmen Thrive?
Who thrives freshman year and how do they do it? “It’s the students who grab ahold of the new experience in a way that makes sense for them.” Dean Hinkson is quick to point out that, at Barnard and at every other college, this looks different for each student, “…everybody is not going to join five clubs but the student who can find her way to what is meaningful for her are the ones who will thrive. That is the student who really finds out why she came here.”
Dean Hinkson recently wrote this wonderful post, Why I Wear My Cap and Gown – and Why Students Should, Too. Here is more about her:
Dean Hinkson is a Barnard alumna and was appointed Dean of College in February of 2011.
As the former Director of the Office of Undergraduate Advising at the University of California-Berkeley from 2005-2011, Avis Hinkson orchestrated the academic advising of over 18,000 undergraduate liberal arts students.
Prior to her arrival at UC-Berkeley, Hinkson spent more than twenty years in enrollment management, beginning as a work-study student in Barnard’s Admissions Office and culminating with her position as Dean of Admissions and Enrollment Planning at Mills College.
Hinkson holds a B.A. in psychology from Barnard College, an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University, and an Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. (Excerpted from the Barnard College website.)