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Bye-Bye Birdies: Sending The Kids Away to College

July 28, 2014, 1:06 pm

cartoon of dad and baby

They grow up so fast if you let them

All over the United States, slowly but surely, families are preparing for the ritual of Sending the Kid to College. Some will be living at home and going to a local four-year or community college; other young people will be taking the big leap to living away from home for the first time.

By September, one of the biggest topics for discussion — and one of the biggest gripes — among many college faculty will be how emotionally, and practically, underprepared many of your kids are for their freshman year. Although I now teach the non-traditional, adult students who are becoming the majority of undergraduates, for years I welcomed fresh-faced 18 year olds whose academic preparation often far exceeded their ability to navigate school independently of their parents.

The major changes I observed over those two decades were: an increasing lack of emotional separation between parents and children (with an accompanying rise in students having difficulty making their own decisions); and an increasing tendency, on the part of first year students, to presume that college was more or less similar to high school in its expectations and practices.

These two things result in a third phenomenon which parents ought to know about: that many faculty see behavior in students (particularly absenteeism, lateness, disorganization and requests for special arrangements) as irresponsible, lazy, dishonest and immature, when in fact students are living, and making decisions, in ways that make complete sense to them and to their parents.

So without further ado, here are things you can do as a parent to make your kid a strong and independent college student.

Reduce casual contact while still being available for a good talk; offer less help and advice, but always be ready to give it when your child asks. If your kid is going away to college, let him go away. This means not texting and talking every day, or even every other day, or every other other day. The contemporary undergraduate is completely tethered to parents through smartphones. Half the time when a cell phone goes off in class, it is not a friend or lover making contact, but a parent. Students leave class to return calls to parents because, over time, they have been trained to do that. If they do not, their parents become anxious that “something has happened” and they keep texting or calling until the kid answers. Instead of being in touch three or four times a day while your frosh kid is selecting classes, let your kid know that you are available to talk things through but that you are basically excited to know more about the choices she ultimately makes when the process is done. You might even want to know your student’s class schedule so you don’t try to contact her while she is in class.

Never insist on speaking to a faculty member, administrator or dean unless you believe your child is in mortal danger. Mortal danger does not include: inexplicable course selection or a choice of major; a bad roommate situation; not being chosen as a starter on whatever team; telling faculty advisors and professors about past learning problems; letting the people in charge know that you and your husband are taking the opportunity of launching the kids to get a divorce (parents often separate when the kids leave, actually); or a grave illness in the family. I do not diminish these things as problems. They are problems, but they are up to your kid to deal with, perhaps with some support from you. Because of federal privacy laws, we are not permitted to speak to you about your child or his work, but many of you then pressure the kid to give permission. Please don’t do that: it is infantilizing. It is part of the transition to adulthood for young people to learn to navigate these difficulties themselves.

What counts as mortal danger? Seeing signs of suicidal impulses, a stalker, florid psychosis, eating disorders and anything — anything – that has to do with guns, bombs or knives.

Have a conversation with your kid about the differences between high school and college as academic environments. This may require you learning new language yourself, and familiarizing yourself with contemporary college practices. For example:

  • We don’t assign “homework” in college. We assign “work.” It has an entirely different function than most high school homework, and we do not repeat that work in class. We usually spend class time on something else, so not preparing assigned work is a huge mistake on the part of the student.
  • A practice that seems to be common in high school (especially in the top tracks) of allowing students to rewrite work, retake tests or hand in extra credit for a higher grade does not exist at the college level, unless a course is explicitly designed that way. There are no do-overs in college, except at the professor’s discretion. High school students also seem to have their deadlines extended ad infinitum (at least the kids I have known have had this experience) and this simply will not happen in college without some kind of penalty attached.
  • Sending a paper home to parents for a final edit and handing it in as the student’s own work is usually a violation of college honor codes, unless the student acknowledges that help. However, let me emphasize my larger point: even if you have been doing your kid’s homework helping your kid with homework since the first grade, students are supposed to manage their own work and complete their own assignments in college, unsupervised by their parents or anybody else. If they need help, that is what professors, TA’s, writing and math workshops are for.
  • If you are on a team, unless it is an NCAA Division I team with a squad of tutors, students are not automatically excused from class, nor do they have tests and papers rescheduled, to accommodate practice and competition. Any student-athlete needs to find out what the regulations are for such conflicts and make the practice and competition schedule accommodate her academics, not the reverse. This often requires higher-level planning skills, something to work on this summer whether your kid is an athlete or not.
  • High school teachers are geared to helping students perform well. In contrast, college faculty have a very defined sense of what they are, and are not, responsible for, and it varies from professor to professor. Hence, the most frequent complaint I hear from colleagues is that students who have been given a syllabus never read it or refer to it to answer their own questions. Hence, they are perpetually blindsided by the requirements, readings and deadlines that are outlined in the syllabus, and they reveal this shortcoming when they ask questions that have already been answered. Some faculty will have the habit of reminding students about assignments that are due; others do not, and that doesn’t make them bad teachers. READ THE SYLLABUS. OFTEN.
  • Staying up all night to write papers, beginning your study for a test at the last minute, doing your class prep in another class, and reading Cliff’s Notes instead of the book may have worked in high school: it will produce mediocre to inferior results in college. One reason I think many students complain when they receive bad grades is that they are doing exactly what they have always done. In addition, they often fail to understand that the quality of their work is expected to rise in college, not remain the same.
  • Being sick is not always a good excuse, and the professor is not responsible for helping a student catch up after a common cold. In fact, one reason for a student to be caught up in her work for classes, is that she might get sick. Temporarily falling behind is one thing: having deferred deadlines on top of deferred deadlines is a recipe for disaster.

But here is something you can do as a parent in the next two weeks: get your kid set up on Evernote or Zotero, so that when she has syllabi in hand she can put all of her work and study obligations into a management system that will send alerts a few days before things are due, keep assignments straight, and allow her to keep track of class notes, office hours and fun things that she wants to participate in. These systems will recognize conflicts as well (say, between an away game and a midterm.)

Address alcohol and drug use concretely, and not as a moral, legal or family discipline issue. Most colleges have regulations about drinking and drugs that students flout regularly, and very few of them are actually disciplined for it. And yet sometimes they are. I have heard, through my grapevines, of recent incidents in which students were suspended, expelled or heavily fined for drinking, for rowdy behavior and fighting while drinking, for destroying college property and for dealing drugs. It can happen, and your kid should know that breaking the rules may have very serious consequences. College feels like, and is, a highly unsupervised space. That can have the effect of students being increasingly incautious, and excessive, about normal kid behaviors that are against the law. I suspect that, if higher ed begins to grapple with questions of sexual violence on campus, universities will not blame their own policies: they will crack down on intoxication and drug possession, make the penalties harsher, and develop a greater police presence on campus. It is worth your while to have a conversation with your kid about this before, not after, something happens.

Furthermore, students often do poorly in school because they drink too much, sleep too little, and are hungover two or three days a week. It is very rare, in my experience, that a student links poor  achievement to excessive partying.

Urge cleanliness: make sure your kid knows how to do laundry, and how to clean her environment properly. Student houses and dormitories at Zenith that I was exposed to were, almost uniformly, pigsties, and I doubt that Zenith is exceptional. Here’s the news: no one cleans or inspects your kid’s room. No one reminds him to do his laundry. Maybe, if you are lucky, the college cleans the halls and bathroom, but en suite style living with little kitchenettes and private bathrooms have probably eliminated that on many campuses.  One of the greatest causes of friction between first-year roommates is cleanliness, BO and other personal hygiene issues, problems that then escalate during crunch times in the semester.

Be respectful of your student’s calendar. Having just suggested that you stay out of your student’s biz, I am going to make a contradictory suggestion: create a family Google Calendar that allows your student to enter all of his real obligations. If you need to buy a plane ticket, you will know when final exams are scheduled; if you want to drop by for dinner on the way to somewhere else, you will know before you ask whether it is a good time. More important: don’t shave days out of your student’s semester for family events unless they are unavoidable. Unavoidable family obligations include: funerals, deathbed visits, and emergency surgery that could result in death. You will note that death is the theme here. Avoidable family obligations include: weddings, vacations, airline fare sales, 50th anniversary parties, anyone’s birthday, grandma’s 85th birthday in Miami, family reunions, childbirth, minor hospitalizations and surgeries.

Here’s the news: your kids will more or less do what you ask them to do, they will ask their professors to accommodate them, and their professors will stick to their guns about deadlines and attendance. They will also think your kid does not have her priorities straight, when in fact, it is you who have misplaced priorities. You need to know that professors are neither required to accommodate the list of avoidable events, nor is there any reason for them to. Don’t schedule things that force students to choose between family and school, and when those choices are taken out of your hand, do not pressure your student to participate in non-essential family events. Faculty miss all of these things in their own families. Why? Because they are meeting an obligation to your children to be in class when they said they would be.

Readers — what of you think parents should talk to their children about? And parents — what are your frustrations and fears about sending that kid away?

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