As our teens head off to college, we know our relationship with them will change, but how it will change is not clear. I’ll admit to being scared out of my mind when I sent my first son off to 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. Communication can be relentless with a phone glued to the palm of their hand. And, considering that by the end of high school, my senior’s responses had often dwindled 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. To learn more about 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 when she was Dean at Barnard College. (She is now Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Pomona College.)
With a wealth of experience, she brings insight into the topic of what makes first-year students thrive and how can parents support that process without leaving their fingerprints all over their kids’ lives.
Dean Hinkson’s suggestions for college freshmen
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 teens 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 teens that this “really is a shift.” According to her, “It is not about intimidating them or scaring them. It 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.
Decide How You Will Communicate
It’s important for families to understand how they will communicate and relate once their teen has left home, Dean Hinkson explains. Every family has its 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.
Some families check in every day with their freshman, Dean Hinkson says, and kids who text their parents ‘good night’ every night, but it is important that families find what works for 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 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 kids 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 that just because something did not go the way either a student or parent expected is not a reason to call. Parents 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 parents 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?
“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 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 finds out why she came here.
About Dean Hinkson
Dean Hinkson wrote this wonderful post, Why I Wear My Cap and Gown – and Why Students Should, Too. Here is more about her from the Pomona College website.
Dean Hinkson oversees the Dean of Students office, governing: student affairs, campus life, residence halls, the dining program, Career Development Office, Smith Campus Center, programs like KSPC, Asian American Resource Center, Draper Center for Community Partnerships, Queer Resource Center, the Title IX coordinator and related support services, the Women’s Union, Outdoor Education Center and policy and non-academic compliance matters.
With more than three decades of higher education experience at Barnard College and UC Berkeley, she was an associate dean of admissions at Pomona from 1990-1994.
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