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Difficulty making friends is a common “panic issue” for first-year students. “A lot of students make friends quickly when they start school,” says Savage. “But a month or two later they think, these are not the people I want to hang around with, and I don’t know how to find anyone else.” Some students may feel that they haven’t made any friends at all.
Again, you should listen empathetically and then ask your child if he or she can think of ways of meeting new people—by joining a campus organization, starting a study group, or simply leaving a dorm-room door open while hanging out, so others feel comfortable dropping by and saying hello.
Also, remind your child that close, solid friendships take time to develop. When Maureen Barradas, a 19-year-old Chicagoan, arrived at Carleton College last fall, she missed her old friends terribly. “It’s hard to find people that you really click with,” she says. “I had to remind myself that my relationship with my friends back home took time, too. I knew I had to be patient.”
Barradas, like a great many first-year students, thought about transferring to a different school, primarily because she missed her high school friends and big-city life. By the middle of her second semester at Carleton, however, she began to realize “the amazing opportunities that can only be offered at a small school”—and had begun to develop a solid, comforting circle of new friends.
A desire to transfer is common among first-year students—a fact unknown to most parents, who often feel blindsided when they receive a seemingly out-of-the-blue “I hate this school. I want to transfer!” phone call from their child. Parents are usually unsure how to react, particularly when they know that transferring can result in lost credits, tuition dollars, and scholarships, and may not solve a child’s social or academic problems.
“By mid-October, when students don’t feel at home here, they decide it must be our fault. Something must be wrong with the college,” says Hamre. “It’s real common. Probably half of our first-year class wants to transfer sometime during October.”
Nationally, 60 percent of students do end up attending more than one college or university—a number that has climbed steadily during the last two decades. According to a study released earlier this year by the National Center for Education Statistics, about a third of these students transfer for a more desirable academic program, another third for a better location or more prestige, and about 10 percent for financial reasons. The rest transfer for other reasons—perhaps because of homesickness or a failed love affair or academic struggles.
It’s important, says Hamre, that parents keep the transfer option open for their child. “Don’t panic,” she says. “Ask your child to think again about what they want in college and about how much effort they’ve already put into it. But don’t close their options off, because then they’ll really feel penned in.”
Savage urges students who want to transfer to at least complete their first semester so they don’t lose credits or academic momentum. “Typically, if they can last until February, it starts to feel like home,” she says.
Stay in touch— but not too much.
A few years ago, Hamre began noticing that parents were calling her to talk about a particular test grade or assignment that their child had received while the child was still in class. “The student was calling the parent while sitting in the classroom taking the test or just after [finishing],” she recalls. “They hadn’t even gotten to my office yet to complain themselves before their parents called me.”
Hamre decided to conduct an unscientific online poll of her first-year female students. (Most of the parents calling her had daughters at Macalester.) How often, she asked the students, did they communicate with their parents?
The results astounded her: “On average, our young women were talking with their mother or father seven times a day,” she says. The communication took many forms: e-mail, phone calls, Instant Messenger, and text messaging.
More formal studies at other institutions have revealed less frequent, but still quite regular, contact between parents and students. A study released this spring at Middlebury College in Vermont found that students communicated an average of 10 times per week with their parents. Parents initiated most of the contact, but students didn’t object. (In fact, 28 percent said they’d like more contact with their fathers.)
“Today’s students are involved on a day-to-day, some hour-to-hour, relationship with their parents,” says Hamre. Family support is great, she says, but the parent-child “electronic tether” needs to be loosened if a student is to become truly independent.
“Some students aren’t making decisions until they call their mom,” Hamre says. “Or they’re not interacting with other students as they walk across campus—instead they’re on their cell phones, talking with a parent. Or they’re not staying up all night talking about how they’re going to save the world—they’re text-messaging their parents on their laptops.”
The Middlebury study found that students who initiated contact with their mom or dad three or more times a week were more likely to be emotionally dependent on their parents. Their parents were also more likely to be involved in the student’s academics—a big negative, as the study also found that students who take responsibility for their academic life are more satisfied with their academic performance and with their overall college experience.
That’s not to say you should never contact your student to find out how things are going. Just don’t make it a daily habit.
Of course, some students go weeks without phoning home. What can you do about the child who ignores you completely? “I encourage parents to write an old-fashioned letter,” says Hamre. “Tell them you want them to take a break, and you’re enclosing $50 for them to go out to eat or to buy something. But don’t put any money in the envelope.”
You’ll hear from your child—and soon.
Expect your child to change.
Often, it’s not until winter break that parents realize how much their child has “changed.” The change might be visible: a pierced lip or an ankle tattoo. Or it might be an attitudinal about-face: a refusal to attend church or synagogue with you or an accusation that you are a hypocrite for supporting an environmental organization while driving an SUV.
Try to take such changes in stride. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to have your child challenge your beliefs and behaviors, but doing so is part of growing up. “They’re going to test out some different values, whether it has to do with politics or religion,” says Treeger. “Listen to their point of view, and don’t get into a battle with them.” In the end she says, most students come back to their parents’ way of thinking. “The apple usually doesn’t fall very far from the tree,” she says.
When your child comes home for winter break, talk up front about what your expectations are for the visit—and listen to your child’s expectations. Negotiate. “Your child has had quite a bit of independence at school,” says Hamre, “so let them have a little bit of freedom at home without feeling that they’re getting in trouble with you or impinging on the rest of the family.”
Oh, and don’t alter your child’s space at home, at least during that first year. “Students like to come home to their own room,” says Savage. “I had one student tell me, ‘My mom changed my room into a sewing room, which was bad enough, but she also painted the walls gray.’ ”
Trust your child.
When you go to a children’s playground, you’ll notice three basic types of parents, says Treeger. Some hover around their child, always fearful that he or she will fall or otherwise be harmed. Others sit on a nearby bench, talking with friends or immersed in a newspaper, oblivious to their child’s actions.
Then there are those who sit on the bench, but watch their child with interest, responding enthusiastically when he or she climbs to the top of the jungle gym and cries, “Look at me, Dad!” or scoots down a long slide and shouts, “Watch this, Mom!”
Throughout your child’s life—including during the college years—you want to be in that third group of parents, says Treeger. “Be the parent who is a kind of anchor,” she says. “Be there to express pleasure and joy at your child’s exploration and accomplishments, but don’t hover around them and try to rescue them from every problem they encounter.”
“It’s a tough tightrope to walk,” adds Wagner. “You want to stay connected to your child, but you also have to let go.”
Barradas, the Carleton student, offers even simpler advice to newbie college parents: “Just relax, and trust that you raised your kid well.”
Susan Perry is a Minneapolis writer who wishes she had written this article before her two children went off to college.