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Helicopters to Tugboats: Successfully Send Your Student to College

preparing-senior-collegeCollege orientation sessions around the country are buzz with the sound of spinning chopper blades. Helicopter parents…so called as they hover around their children.

Parents are much more involved in the lives of their college students. Many students love to have parents attend orientation and depend on family for support and encouragement. Sometimes the parent transition is more daunting than the student’s transition. Although parents continue as the primary influence for their student, the relationship changes with a move towards independence for the child and a move from helicopter to tugboat for the parents.

Why the tugboat analogy? The tugboat does not make the journey for a ship; it provides guidance and help when needed. Tugboats are powerful and capable; but wait to be called to respond only when the warning signal arrives. So how do parents quiet the spinning chopper blades and become support vessels?

First off…Celebrate!

Take time to celebrate the high school graduation and college acceptance. Parents may feel a tinge of sadness watching their “child” becoming an “adult,” but realizing your child is happy and full of anticipation is joyous. Talk about the upcoming changes with enthusiasm and avoid squelching the excitement with your own angst. Have a party, take a celebration vacation, or go on a shopping spree to outfit the new dorm room.

Your student will always need you!

Regardless of distance, your student knows you are the most influential person in their life. They may talk endlessly about new friends, cool (or not cool) roommates, or the latest date, but you remain number one. Be confident in this even when it is not verbalized often.

Show your student you are interested in their college life from the beginning to keep the lines of communication open. Nancy Walburn, Director of the Division of General Studies at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, works with parents of freshmen at orientation. She advises parents to “assist their child in transitioning by asking good open-ended questions, such as, ‘Who is your English professor?’ or ‘Tell me about your classes and how you selected them.’ Keeping an open door for discussions of your child’s choices is important and allows a parent to give guidance and encouragement as needed.”

Stay in touch… some.

Daily phone calls or texts probably will not happen as your student will be overwhelmed with new responsibilities and a new social life. Sons, in particular, will check in at home less often than daughters. Email and texting are great ways to keep in touch as your student can respond when convenient. Most importantly, talk with your student about how often you expect to correspond…be reasonable. Establishing clear expectations will eliminate frustration.

Know they will make mistakes.

It’s going to happen. Your student will use bad judgment, choose unwisely, or miss something along the way. Be the listening ear without judgment. Ask questions that help your student relate more information about the situation. Give your student the opportunity to tell the story and then discuss some options. Handling the first mistake calmly will provide confidence in coming to you next time…yes, next time!

Let your student take care of business.

Academic advisors hear stories of parents wanting to attend classes with their student. This is an extreme example but parents often take on their student’s responsibilities under the guise of “trying to help.” Your student should take care of registering for classes, turning in assignments, communicating with professors, and acquiring the information needed to complete a degree program. Students are busy and college is an excellent arena for testing time management and organizational skills. It is a great place to practice self advocacy and communication with people in charge. Talk with your student about responsibilities but let him make the phone call, send the email, or stop by the office. Your student will gain the respect of the college personnel and will hone skills needed for future careers.

Tugboats may not seem as exciting as helicopters but tugboats are needed when it comes to college freshmen. Be the guide and support for college success and also…enjoy the journey into the harbor!

Lori Barstow teaches academic success courses and is an academic advisor at The University of Alabama.

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