Parents are taking a more active role when their children go off to college. But how much is too much?
The first in a six-part series.
There was little ceremony when Karen Kaler started college in the 1970s.
"My parents didn't go to college, and when I left their attitude was, 'You're a grownup now, go do this,'" she recalled. "They said 'Study hard, call Sundays when the [phone] rates are cheap, good luck.' They considered their job done."
Going to college now is different -- in numerous, sometimes subtle ways. And not just for students. With the closer bonds between parent and child, the entire family feels the changes. And with the high cost of tuition, a lot is at stake.
That's why Kaler, the wife of University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, volunteers for the university's Parent Program. She regularly greets groups of parents at welcome sessions designed to helped parents remain involved with their children while allowing them to become more independent.
"I know what it's like to be in their shoes," said the mother of two sons, both recent college graduates. "I tell parents, 'You're involved with the U, but not officially. That's like me. We're in the same boat.'"
Over the years, moms and dads have become eager to learn how to parent from afar, and colleges and universities are stepping up to guide them. More than half of the nation's colleges and universities now offer separate orientations for parents and their children. In addition to the expected campus tours, many parent-only orientations feature workshops and seminars on how to manage their soon-to-be revised relationship with their children.
"We see parents as partners. It's a new approach," said Connie Groves, vice president for student life and development at Winona State University. "Parents need to know how to be most helpful to their young adults. They want to know 'What's the new role?' so they can play it in the best way."
Joyce Holl, executive director of the Minneapolis-based National Orientation Directors Association, agrees.
"There's more back-and-forth between students and their parents with this generation," said Holl. "They're more likely to seek and appreciate parental input, and parents are glad to provide it. People who wanted to be the best parents they could be for a kindergartner and a middle-schooler want to be the best parents they can be for a college student."
Marjorie Savage, the university's Parent Program director and author of a book on mentoring your child during the college years, considers parental involvement key to a student's success. Parents can shore up confidence and help their kids set academic goals, she said. They also can do something others may not be able to do: identify cues that their children might be struggling.
"There may be a student who stays in their room, and if they don't cause trouble and they seem content, the [community assistant] may not be alarmed," she said. "They wouldn't know that this person is an extrovert and this is not consistent. We rely on parents to recognize personality changes."
Taking a back seat
Still, Holl and others said parents and their college kids need to establish new boundaries -- and test them. That can be difficult for both parents and their almost-grown kids.
When she meets with parents, Kaler tries to make it clear that they may need to take a fresh approach. "You want to be encouraging, but they need to solve their own problems," she said. She offers parents practical suggestions, such as letting your child schedule her own doctor and dentist appointments. She also gives parents a big pat on the back.
"Our generation gets grief for being helicopter parents, but our lifelong involvement often, honestly, deserves some of the credit for these kids' success," she said. "As parents, we got them here. We raised them to do well."
Savage, too, said parents can be more confident that their relationships with their children are changing, not being severed.
"Students regard parents as their best advisers," she said. "They will remember what you said. They know your values, and let me reassure parents that their values can outweigh peer pressure."
Kevyn Burger of Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.