Landing the Helicopter: 10 Ways I’ve Let My College Daughter “Adult”

The transition from battlefield mom to wave-and-smile-from-the-sidelines mom is not easy. I was all up in my kid’s business when they were in high school. I checked schoolwork, proofed papers, kept track of deadlines, and nagged as needed. I coordinated activities and advised them on their extracurriculars.

I kept a short leash and monitored and tracked my kids when needed. And for better or worse, I helped manage the college application process. They did all the work, but I micromanaged and hovered over their shoulder. I was proud to be a helicopter mom.

But once they left the nest, I knew what I needed to do: Shut. It. Down.

After all, I had done my job and done it well. They were wonderful individuals that any parent would be proud of. As each left home, I knew they were ready for the next phase of their lives and ready to become independent, responsible adults. They could not do that if I were doing it for them. To become adults, I had to treat them like adults and let them be fully responsible.

And so, as my youngest daughter left for her first semester of college, I stepped back. I cut the umbilical cord. I untied the apron strings. I let go of the leash. I landed the damn helicopter.

college student
When my youngest left for college, I finally stepped back. (Twenty 20 @TimmProductions)

Helicopter Mom: 10 ways to help college students become independent adults

1. I separated our shared accounts.

My children were on my Apple ID, a hold-over from their first phones as tweens. Whenever they downloaded a new app or purchased new music, I saw it or had to approve it. We shared apps and books and music and photo albums.

So, before college, our phones got a divorce. I went to the Genius Bar and asked to have our smartphones separated in all ways, but financially, I still pay the bill. I also had my freshman sign up for their Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Spotify student accounts. I don’t need to know how often my daughter buys her hair products online, what movies she watches, or what music she downloads.

2. I separated our social media and email.

During college application season, I loaded her childhood email account on my phone to help her keep track of her 14 college applications, requests for recommendations, and college interviews. I served as her secretary, a job I assumed without her asking.

But once she left for college, I asked her to change her passwords and deleted her email account from my phone. This also went for social media. She lives on Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and some GroupMe texting apps. I do not. We agreed I could be her friend only on Facebook because “that’s just for family and old people.”

3. I separated our bank accounts.

With online banking, I have always had direct access to her student checking account. I could see when she bought Boba tea, spent her Christmas money at Forever 21, or hired an Uber. No longer. I took my name off her student account and deleted those accounts from my online app. I can transfer her money, but can’t see her balance or how it’s spent.

I also encouraged her to adjust her privacy settings on Venmo. I don’t need to see she reimbursed Renee for transportation, “so we didn’t get holla’d at.” I learned about Venmo privacy when my friend’s son was making up wildly inappropriate notes for his Venmo transactions, which his mother — and all her church friends — could see.

4. I stepped away from the student portal.

Besides having a separate log-in to Cashnet, where parents can pay tuition, I have no online access to her school accounts. I can’t see her grades. I can’t look over her assignments calendar or school emails. I knew her portal password from the summer when I sat with her while she registered for classes and downloaded packing lists and move-in instructions.

Once she started school and two-factor authentication was in place, I no longer had easy, anonymous access, nor did I need it. Checking her grades and assignments would only increase her stress and undermine her responsibility for her work. However, I expect to see her grades for her first two years at the end of each semester.

5. I handed over (most) of her medical care.

I helped my daughter transfer prescriptions to her college health clinic during the move-in weekend. We discussed how she could make appointments and get prescriptions filled. We discussed mental health resources and contraception. I’m always here if she has questions or needs help; otherwise, she has this. (Who am I kidding? On the first parent weekend, I took her to Walmart for her flu shot.)

6. I let her manage her education and extra-curricular activities.

She is currently on a pre-med track majoring in medical anthropology and is involved in several activities, including an a cappella group, a theater group, and a choir. If she decides to drop an activity, or a course, or change her major, that’s her decision. As long as she has a plan that includes a post-college paycheck and works with her advisors to graduate on time, it’s not my business. If she’d like my advice, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll get it. But the decision is hers.

7. I let her handle her travel arrangements.

I helped her get a passport, register with TSA Pre-Check, and set up frequent flier accounts and the Amtrak App before she left for college. She’s been an expert Uber user for at least a year. While I may still pay for the plane ticket, I let her manage online check-ins, rides to the airport, checking baggage, and navigating gate changes and plane delays. I pick her up and drop her off curbside when she comes home to visit.

8. I let her decide how often she talks to me.

I do not require her to call or text a certain number of times per day, week, or month. Tending to relationships — including her relationship with me — is a skill she must hone. She and I were very close before she left, and I still send silly pet videos and text her occasionally. But she does not need me as much as she once did, so she doesn’t call often.

I’m happy to get a quick text every few days; I am proud of her independence and have adjusted. As long as she answers urgent texts and calls me occasionally, I do not pressure her to share more of her life than she chooses.

9. I left the college Facebook parent group.

My daughter’s college has a group specifically for the parents of freshmen. The group was a wonderful resource at first. We answered each other’s questions about move-in day, course registration, and parent weekend. But as the semester progressed, it devolved into Command and Control for a squadron of helicopter parents uninterested in a higher hover.

How can my son find a tutor for chemistry? What should my daughter do about her horrible roommate? My son has a sore throat. Can anyone recommend an off-campus doctor? It included parents trying to coordinate their child’s ridesharing to the airport for the holidays — a clear violation of #7. I left that group and now swap more general concerns with moms on other parenting groups.

10. I will remove my daughter from the “Find My” iPhone tracking app.

Tracking a young adult in most circumstances is intrusive and authoritarian. Tapping the icon to see if she got up and went to class Monday morning or if she’s safe in her dorm at 3 a.m. Saturday night is Orwellian, at best, and a flagrant violation of her privacy, at worst.

I have not tracked any of my children since they were teenagers living at home, and only if they knew it and had given me ample reason to do so. Tracking my college kid and saying it’s for her safety is a lie. Yes, I am aware that a North Carolina teen was recently saved by her mother on that very app after a horrific accident where the girl’s car rolled down an embankment and was not visible from the road. But that argument could be used for tracking anyone, and I’m not about to let the police, my car insurance company, or even my family members follow me.

So why do I track my daughter while she’s at college? It’s about me feeling connected to her during the day: “Oh, look, she’s back at the Music Center; she must be at choir practice.” Or it’s about me being able to sleep soundly: “Oh, good. She’s back in her dorm.” I know it’s about me and not about her safety. I know it’s an invasion of her privacy and undermines her autonomy. I promise I’ll delete it. Just not now.

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About Katharine Robertson

Kate Robertson lives in Texas and is mom to five mostly grown children. She finds herself caretaker of the empty nest, keeper of the stuff, tender of the poodle, parrot, and ferret, and adviser to the uninterested. A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, she now edits college application essays and you can follow her blog, Alone in the Nest: Life After the Last One Leaves, or find her on Facebook or Twitter

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