We Spoke to Our College Son Once a Week and This Happened

Grown and Flown was where I first saw the advice about how often to communicate with my college freshman. It was 2018, and we were just about to send the guinea pig off to a university three hours away. Another milestone, for him and us. Another challenge we’d be learning to navigate alongside our test kid. This time, the pressure was on.

When he was two and we’d chosen the wrong daycare, we fixed it before he was old enough to remember. When he was four and we didn’t know what to feed him besides chicken nuggets and macaroni, we course corrected before any long-term health effects took hold.

We only spoke to our son once a week while he was in college. (Photo credit: Tonya Rodriguez)

Leading up to my son leaving for college I listened to all the advice

But college? We might only have one shot at getting this right. This milestone felt far too important (and expensive) to just wing it. In the months leading up to his departure, I was a sponge for advice, soaking up wisdom and seasoned perspectives wherever I could find them.

One call per week was the suggested cadence

The author of the Grown and Flown piece argued that one call per week was the ideal cadence. She compared her kid’s college experience to her own in the 90s. She recounted that her folks had had to wait for hand-written letters in the mail; texting wasn’t a thing. Any phone calls they received came from a payphone in the hallway of her dorm that took actual quarters, and they lasted under 20 minutes.

If she and her parents had survived the separation, she argued, then surely her kid would be fine with one phone call per week. She made some valid points. I’d also seen the pitfalls of over-communication

I watched my friends over-communicate with their college kids

The year before, I had watched a friend suffer through her kid’s freshman year of college. She received daily texts about the worst roommate ever, and the worst professors ever, and the worst food ever, and the worst tests ever, and the worst TA’s, and the worst graders, and the worst…you name it.

My friend was miserable. At times, her daughter’s text rants and disappointing phone calls drove her to literal tears. She was constantly worried about her baby girl, clinging to any signs of happiness throughout the week. When we were having lunch together one day, her entire demeanor shifted from despondent to chipper after a simple text: “I got a 95” (on a test her daughter was positive she had failed the day before).

The interesting thing was, when I saw my friend’s daughter over winter break and asked how college was going, she seemed perfectly fine. She told me she was good and had earned a 4.0 her first semester. So what was the deal? Why had her mom been so worried for the past four months?

My guess: over-communication, along with some not-so-cool habits. The daughter had fallen into the routine of contacting her mom every time something difficult happened. And she probably had no idea the emotional anguish her constant complaints were causing her mother.

We took the one-call-per-week advice

Based on my friend’s difficult experience and the G&F advice I had read, we decided to set a one-call-per-week policy when our eldest went off to college. Stifling our own fears and anxiety, my husband and I assured our son there was no obligation to check in every day. Of course he could call us if he hit a snag, and we asked him to text us if anything cool or interesting happened, but there was no pressure. We said we’d like to hear his voice once a week, though —Sundays would be great if that worked for his schedule.

Our son agreed to a once-a-week call and here’s what happened

1. He finally colored outside the lines

You know the stereotype that firstborns are the rule followers, the ones judging everyone else and walking the straight and narrow? This was one hundred percent my eldest son. We used to joke that by kindergarten he was the most mature person in our family. 

Even in high school, he avoided trouble. No drinking, vaping, parties, late nights, or reckless pranks. He was just a really good kid. Too good. We kind of hoped he’d start to color outside the lines a bit once he got to college.

He certainly did. With a little space and freedom, our eldest child finally acted like, well, an 18-year-old with some steam to blow off. He didn’t get into anything too wild or terribly illegal, but he did push some boundaries. And I’m glad.

Making mistakes can help us relate to others, to be less judgmental and more empathetic. Breaking some rules is liberating and teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously. My kid needed that.

2. We had to remind him to call us sometimes

Without constant contact with his folks, our kid settled into college life just fine. He even forgot to call us a few times. If we hadn’t heard from him by Sunday evening, I’d text him the emoji of an old-fashioned telephone as a reminder that we needed proof of life.

3. He had time to process the bad, and then focus on the good

Was limiting our talks to one call per week the reason our son was enjoying his classes, learning a ton, meeting interesting people, and trying all kinds of new foods? Of course not. Our call schedule had nothing to do with it. But by the time we spoke to him every Sunday afternoon, these were the highlights he shared.

He certainly faced hiccups during the week, but we were usually spared the real-time drama. By our weekly call, he had already survived the issues that occurred three or four days earlier and determined they weren’t even worth mentioning. By Sunday, he had already processed the disappointment, stress, or frustration so that on our call, he could focus on the good things that had happened.

As far as we could tell, he was thriving in college. And for parents trying to adjust to this new phase, that assurance is everything.

4. His confidence soared without me interfering

Confession: For the first few years of his life, it was way too much about me. About my ego. About programming my child to be a perfect little reflection of me so everyone would know I was doing this motherhood thing right.

By the time he was about six, I started to back off. I had seen and read what happens to kids whose mothers never learn to just chill out and let their kids be independent. It does not go well as they grow up. Often, the relationship is either one of dysfunctional codependency where the adult child always seems to have a problem that mommy must swoop in to resolve, or a relationship in which the child feels suffocated enough their only choice is to sever ties with their parent.

Both of those scenarios seemed unbearable, so I tried really hard not to get in the way of my kids’ development. This might be the hardest thing a parent has to do—watch our kids struggle and let them fail. But you know when it gets a lot easier? When they don’t live in your home anymore. With the space to figure out his own schedule, prioritize his responsibilities, and navigate relationship issues on his own, my son gained the confidence to break out of his comfort zone.

We were pleasantly shocked when he called home one Sunday to tell us that not only had he joined a campus organization, he was running for an officer position. By junior year, the kid who had been the opposite of a joiner in high school was now coordinating campus-wide events at his university.

5. He graduated on schedule and without incident

When he graduated college after four years, my kid was happy. He had a full-time job lined up, a place to live, a wonderful girlfriend, and solid plans for the future—all without constant phone calls and texts from his parents. I’m not saying our call schedule was the reason for any of this, but it obviously didn’t hurt.

And I wonder…If he had been in touch with us all the time, reminded that the option to come back home was there if he needed it, would he have tried so hard? Would he have put himself out there, applied for as many jobs, and been as determined to make it on his own? We’ll never know.

6. We still hear from him every Sunday

Did you call your parents every week when you were 24? I sure didn’t. Not a chance. But it’s two years post graduation, and we still hear from our eldest every Sunday.

Now the calls are about how things are going at work, the new apartment he just found, or the next weekend getaway he and his girlfriend are planning. The touchpoints have evolved in other ways too. He asks more questions now—about our lives, our jobs, and our hobbies. He’s more curious and open to our opinions.

7. We did the same thing with his younger brother

The one-call-per-week cadence worked so well, we did the same thing when his younger brother went off to college five years later. Baby bro just finished his freshman year. Despite the fact that my kids have vastly different personalities and communication styles, one call per week was still just right.

With one year down, I asked the youngest his thoughts on only speaking to us on Sunday afternoons, whether it felt like too much, not enough, or a chore. “No, it was good. I liked it. I needed that factory reset every week,” he said.

“Factory reset.” I like that. It has a better ring to it than “nagging.” I highly recommend the one-call-per-week cadence, even though it’s hard.

I recommend the one-call-a-week cadence even though it’s hard

As empty-nesters who miss our kids so much it physically aches sometimes, my husband and I live for Sundays. Those precious calls are a weekly peek into our adult kids’ lives. They also give us a chance to share important reminders and wisdom to a captive listener. They keep us connected to the most important people in our lives.

Bonus perk: Because that’s all the contact we expect, then anytime we get an unscheduled call or text, it feels extra special.

It’s not always easy. The curious, selfish part of me would love to talk to my sons every day. They are, quite literally, my favorite people in the universe. But—just hear me out— maybe not talking to them all the time is part of the reason I like them so much, and why they seem to still like their parents too. Absence makes the heart fonder and all that.

Looking back on raising my kids, there are countless things I would do differently if I could. One thing I don’t regret, though, is the one-call-per-week rule when they went off to college.

More Great Reading:

‘Quiet Quitting’ Your Relationship With Your College Student

I Never Expected That One Word Could Mean So Much to Me

About Tonya Rodriguez

Tonya Rodriguez is an insatiably curious old soul trapped in the body of a neurotic suburban mom. She loves irreverent comedy, red wine, her husband, and two grown kids. Longhorn football makes her happy, and then sad. She works hard, runs for fun, reads a lot, listens to podcasts about politics and murder, and is currently transitioning from a career in marketing to...You can find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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