As a parent, I know how hard it can be to let go and allow our children to manage the bumps and bruises of life. I wish I could protect my daughter from every difficulty and shield her from every hurt. However, as a higher education professional, I know that I can’t, and shouldn’t, parent with that as my priority.
In my work, I see the effects of hyper-involved parents who have been more concerned with preparing the path for their child than with preparing their child for the path. Their parental over-involvement may come from love, but may not in the end succeed in producing confident, capable adults.
Here are some signs that you may be over-parenting your college student, and some suggestions about what you can do instead.
What NOT to do if you are the parent of a college student
1. You contact their professors, because you didn’t like a grade/want to ask for clarification on an assignment/want to ask for an absence to be excused/want to ask for an extension on an assignment due date
Unless your child is incapacitated (heaven forbid), this is not okay. It doesn’t matter if you are paying your student’s tuition. Professors do not want to hear from parents. They want to hear from their students and engage them in these conversations.
Instead of picking up the phone yourself, talk to your student about what is happening. Make sure they’ve thought through their concerns. Encourage them to consult the syllabus, in case there is information that might shed light on the issue. Then, coach them on how to approach the professor and ask for what they want.
2. You say “we” and “our” when talking about your student’s college experiences. (“We got a bid from our first-choice sorority!” or “ We really hope to get into the 11am section of Biology 101.”)
YOU are not joining the sorority or taking Bio, so stop that! This subtle pronoun choice communicates a lot to your student. It can make them feel pressured to achieve the things that will make you happy. Conversely, it could make it easier for your student to “check-out” on taking responsibility for making things happen.
After all, if “we” want something, “we” will handle it. Also, it sends a message that you are personally invested in these experiences to a level that goes beyond concern for your student. It sends the message that these things are about you, when they really aren’t. On a side note, it’s also a red flag to higher education professionals that you are overly involved in your student’s college life.
3. You read their emails and check their assignment grades on a regular basis.
Put down the passwords! You don’t need to know everything. I think it’s reasonable to request final course grades at the end of each semester if you are supporting your college student financially. Beyond that, stay out of the minutiae. You don’t need to know what they earned on every test. You don’t need to know what their professors and friends are emailing to them.
You might argue that being aware of course grades throughout the semester will allow you to help your student get back on track before it’s too late. I get that, but I’ve never in my 17-year career seen it work.
If your college kid isn’t responsible enough to make changes after earning a poor test or assignment grade, they won’t develop that skill by you checking in on them and trying to make them manage it in the way you think is best. They will learn through experiencing the consequences of their choices and by learning to ask for help.
A little adversity goes a lot farther than over-parenting in moving a college student toward good habits. If final course grades come out, and they are less than desirable, talk to your student about what changes he or she needs to make to avoid the same mistakes. Make sure they are aware of campus resources such as academic coaching, tutoring, and professor office hours. Reiterate your expectations for their performance next semester.
4. You call them to wake them up for class.
If they are bright enough to get into college, they are bright enough to figure out how to get themselves out of bed. This is a basic life skill that they need to learn now (and probably should have learned in middle or high school). There are all kinds of wild alarm clocks on the market, from the super loud, to the bed shakers, to the ones that fly around the room until you catch them! Tell your student about them and ask them to pick one if a regular old alarm clock isn’t cutting it.
5. You beg them to come home frequently (with the bribe of doing their laundry).
Of everything on this list, this one will probably be the hardest for me as a parent. I have a few years before my daughter is college-age, and I already know the mom part of me will want her to come home to visit as often as possible. However, the college professional part of me knows this is a terrible idea.
Students who leave campus frequently don’t connect with their institutions and to other students (a critical factor in college success and completion). Students who leave frequently also don’t study enough. Especially during their first year, encourage your student to get involved on campus and to spend time on the weekends studying and working ahead on papers. (And tell your student to do their own laundry. You’ve done enough.)
6. You contact the university when your student can’t get into a class they want/earned a grade they don’t like/has a conflict with a roommate/doesn’t like their math tutor, etc.
You’re calling because your college kid is so busy, and you just want to help him out, right? We see through that excuse, so don’t go there. What makes you think your student can’t handle those things for himself? And if he can’t…teach him!
Barring an incapacitating event, resist the urge to contact university offices (and professors, as previously mentioned) to get information or “fix” things for your student. Talk with them about what their concerns are, and coach them on whom to call and how to express themselves. Help them think through the resolution they are seeking and how to ask for what they want.
When we smooth the way through every challenge they encounter, students don’t learn how to address problems and handle adversity. Nor do they develop the confidence that they CAN address problems and handle adversity. Also, we can’t live through our children or get our sense of self from them. They need to have their own experiences separate from us. We need to not care what other people will think of us if our kids mess up. We need to have the confidence that our students can do this!
Ultimately, we need to love them enough to get out of their way and know they can handle it. Trust them to do well, but know that mistakes will be made. Trust them to survive those mistakes, learn from them, and emerge as confident, capable adults who will make us proud!
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