6 Things You Should Absolutely NEVER Do as the Parent of a College Student

I remember the afternoon I taught my daughter to ride her bicycle without training wheels, running alongside her with my fingers curled around the back of the seat to make sure she didn’t fall. I can still see it in my mind’s eye.

What I remember most vividly, though — what I can still feel — is the moment I first let go of that seat. My stomach dropped like I was on a roller coaster just beginning to plummet. I felt fear and excitement all at the same time. Fear that my baby would get hurt, but excitement that she was conquering something new.

Throughout my years of work in higher education, I’ve had thousands of interactions with students and parents. I imagine that, as a parent, driving away as you leave your student at college the first time is a little bit like letting go of the bicycle seat. Scary, exciting, and stomach-dropping. In spite of that, we have to let go.

College students should take on the responsibilities of adulthood without their parents interfering. (Twenty20)


Here’s the thing, though. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in recent years. Parents aren’t really letting go. And not only are more parents overly involved in their college students’ lives and decisions, but more students appear to be okay with this. The students have learned to be helpless! This is disturbing because a parent’s job is to raise confident, independent humans. It’s hard to do that when we won’t let them think and make decisions for themselves.

Here are six ways to let go of that bicycle seat and allow your college student to be independent.

What parents of college students should NEVER Do

1. Don’t choose their major

Each of us deserves an opportunity to choose our own path, and that includes our children. Even if you’re paying your student’s tuition, residence, and meal plan, you can’t determine something this important for them. Help them explore options based on their own interests, and then let them decide. Also, understand that it is very normal for them to change their mind after they take a few classes.

Not every 18-year-old will choose their life path with certainty at the beginning of college. I would venture to say that the majority do not. (I know it took me longer than I care to admit!). Help your student explore major and career options in high school, let them shadow someone or even work in the field and then leave the final choice up to them.

2. Don’t guilt them into going to a particular school, joining your Greek organization, etc.

For many parents, seeing their students going to college evokes a lot of great memories of their own college days. We remember the places we loved on campus, the groups we joined, and the professors who made a difference.

My husband (also a higher education professional) and I recently had the chance to spend a few hours exploring our alma mater with our twelve-year-old daughter, and it was fantastic. Showing her where we met and made so many great memories was beyond priceless, and a part of me was excited when she started showing an interest in attending there someday. I just have to remember to keep those emotions in check when, one day, she likely wants to attend somewhere else!

Imparting some wisdom and guidance to our students is fine. However, it is not fine to pressure them into becoming involved in the things that gave us the greatest joy or even our sense of identity. And pressure from a parent, even if well-meaning, can feel a lot like being required to do something.

Our students need the space to explore their own interests and build connections that are meaningful to them without the pressure to somehow help us relive our own glory days vicariously through them.

3. Don’t push them away from opportunities just because they scare you.

As a parent, there are some things our students may want to do that make us worry. Think study abroad, a spring break trip to volunteer in an unfamiliar city, or an internship opportunity across the country. I’ll have to admit, I tend to worry about everything. Ev.er.y.thing.

I’m that parent who goes right to the worst-case scenario in my mind when a new situation presents itself. I try really hard to keep that under control and not let it make my daughter hesitant or fearful. The older she gets, the harder that is.

However, we need to resist the urge to discourage our kids, even though that urge comes from the protective instinct that took root in you even before they were born. Encourage them, help them navigate the process, give them advice…and then be confident that they are ready for an adventure that will help them grow in ways you can’t yet imagine.

It may not always feel like you have a great influence in their lives at this point, but nothing will make them feel more confident to experience new things than your confidence in their ability to do so. And guess what? The opposite is true.  If we wring our hands and fret, figuratively or literally, we are telling them we don’t believe in them.

4. Don’t ridicule them when they have new ideas and passions

Sometimes new ideas and passions scare us as parents because they don’t fit into our vision of what’s practical. Or, even tougher sometimes, they don’t fit into the vision we have of who our students are as people. If done right, college exposes students to so many new activities, interests, and perspectives…and these things just may change them in some way.

Even if a new interest seems wacky to you, try to refrain from the jokes. Truth be told, these interests are just as likely to be a passing phase anyway. And if not, congratulations…you’ve raised an independent person who can think for themselves!

5. Don’t speak for them, including using their email to pose as them

Allow me to be blunt for a moment. When a parent calls a university to try and do something on behalf of their student, we know the excuse for why the parent is calling instead of the student is just that…an excuse. Your student is not actually too busy to call and ask a question.

What’s more likely is that you don’t trust them to get the task done themselves in the timeframe you want. Or an even more benevolent reason…it feels really good to help our kids and to feel needed. As the parent of an almost-teen who wants to be highly independent…I get it!

When she asks me for help with something meaningful these days, it’s like the sun coming out! The danger though is that your college student may be okay with you doing things for them because of that learned helplessness I mentioned earlier.

If they’ve been admitted into college (and probably even if they haven’t!), your student is perfectly capable of making a phone call and asking a question to get information they need. If they aren’t, it’s not too late to fix it. You can do that by making them do for themselves, rather than you doing it for them. If they drop the ball, let them deal with the consequences. These are great learning opportunities.

The Grown and Flown book is an essential guide to learning how to support your teen as they get ready for college….and helping you learn to say goodbye.

Grown and Flown book

6. Don’t be afraid to let them struggle and {yes!} fail

When we do everything we think we can do to make sure our kids don’t encounter adversity and failure, we are unwittingly sending them a message that they cannot handle said adversity and failure. And if they think they can’t handle these things, they will be afraid and anxious. They will avoid adversity for fear that they will let you down, and they will avoid adversity for fear that it is impossible to recover. Does this sound like something any of us want for our kids?  I don’t think so.

Instead, we need to teach them that they should stretch themselves, challenge themselves, and always give their best efforts…and that they will fail sometimes. And that failure is okay in those circumstances because it makes us better.  It makes us stronger and smarter. It helps us learn who we are and what we want out of life. Don’t rob your student of these opportunities in college because you don’t want to see them hurt.

Don’t even rob them of these opportunities because you are afraid they’ll waste a few of those tuition dollars you paid.  Your investment in their college education is more than money. It’s an investment in them as people, and hard truth…money can’t be the puppet string that prevents them from making their own way and becoming confident, independent adults.

When I taught my daughter to ride a bike, I equipped her with a helmet, I let her practice, and I knew she would be okay even if (when) she fell. If I never let go of that seat, she never would have learned. Some tumbles and a skinned knee taught her to keep her balance, and they taught her that she could do it! Letting go of control when your student is in college is much the same. You prepare them as best you can, you equip them to stay safe, and then you let go knowing they will be okay no matter what. They’ll fall, they’ll get up, and they’ll be stronger and smarter for it.

You Might Also Enjoy Reading: 

19 Things Every 19 Year Old Should Be Able to Do

6 Things You Should Never Do as a Parent of a College Student 

About Lori Smith

Lori Smith is a wife, mom, and higher education professional who lives in the beautiful state of Tennessee. She currently serves as the Assistant Director of Student Disability Services at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She and her husband, Scott, write their own blog, Kid to College, where they share insights about raising college-ready kids. She may also be found on Twitter.

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