Its a question that plagues many a parent of first-year students.
The parents of this generation of students have been much more involved in parenting than the previous generations, says Debora Liddell, an associate professor in the Division of Counseling, Rehabilitation, and Student Development, part of The University of Iowas College of Education. Its likely that instead of their child hopping on a bike and riding to a playground for a pick-up game of basketball, theyve been signed up for and driven across town by their parents to an organized league game. So, for some parents, it may seem natural to continue this kind of involvement.
But at college, students need to test their independence.
Its important that parents give kids a chance to learn that their decisions have consequences, says Mary Ellen Sinnwell, manager of the residence halls Residence Life. Fortunately here they can do that with a safety net.
In the residence halls, that safety net includes a professional, experienced staff of hall coordinators and assistant hall coordinators, as well as carefully selected and trained resident assistants (RAs). In addition, every student meets with an academic adviser who will help them negotiate academic requirements and choices. And all students have access to Student Health, Public Safety, and University Counseling Service. The Residence Hall Guidebook is a good resource for finding help on campus.
While its important for parents to let their children feel the repercussions of their actions, in many cases its also the law. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) mandates that the University can communicate certain information only to a student. Unless a student has signed a waiver, this includes items like address changes, billing information, discipline sanctions, and contracts for housing and meal plans.
Students, not parents, are responsible for reapplying for room and board each year, says Maggie Van Oel, director of Residence Services. Theyll get information in late January or early February. The University enters into a residence hall or board contract with the student, not the parent, and therefore only the student can make changes.
We have people around to guide and support students, Van Oel says, but ultimately they have to do it themselves.
And letting that happen is not always easy.
Parents may have a tendency to want to fix everything, every complaint, every challenging situation, Liddell says. Its difficult to control the impulse to bail your kids out, because that impulse comes from a deep and loving place. But I would encourage parents of college students to sit on that impulse a little while.
Education is the primary goal of college attendance, but only part of that gain in knowledge is acquired in the classroom. Liddell suggests thinking about what students learn when their parents bail them out of a tough situation.
Rather than learning skills to solve their own problems, they learn mom and dad will bail me out, Liddell says. They need our confidence in their abilities. Whenever we fix their problems for them, we rob them of the opportunity to cash in on that confidence.
Our children dont quit needing us, Liddell says. They just need us in different ways.
Beth Rathe, a junior and linguistics major from Tripoli, Iowa, would agree. She remembers her early days at the University, when she would call home, happy to hear a familiar voice.
It was great to be able to tell someone who knew me the fun things Id done that day, and theyd be happy for me, she says. And her parents were always willing to listen when she was trying to make a decision, for example, on what classes to take.
But the decision was ultimately mine, Rathe says.
Becoming more independent was not without friction, Rathe says, especially when it was time to go home for the summer and she was used to being on her own.
My parents still tried to tell me when to go to bed, she says, but our relationship has changed a lotnow were a lot more open and they are more aware of what Im capable of.
While students may chafe at attempts to curb their independence, they also learn to appreciate their parents more.
Its kind of a drag doing my own laundry, says Michael Albarracin, a sophomore music performance major from Virginia Beach, Va. And I have to get my own food. Its not like my moms there anymore, saying Im going to the store. Do you need anything?
When hes home over winter break, Albarracin loves that his mother cooks meals that were his childhood favorites.
But overall, she treats me like an adult, he says. Parents can help their kids the most by making suggestions but not making their decisions for themthat defeats the whole purpose. If you do that, kids miss out on whats really important.