Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money
Chapter 1From Supervisor to ConsultantLaying the Groundwork for a New Kind of Relationship with Your Child
When our son called from college, we were confused about what he needed from us. Was he asking for our opinion? Did he want us to make decisions for him? Did he simply want a sounding board? Or did he need us to guide him through a decision-making process? As parents, we've come a long way this year. We've learned to step back and allow him to make mistakes, knowing that our love, support, and guidance are still vital in his life, and looking forward to a new and developing adult-to-adult relationship.
One of the most difficult parts of being the parent of a college student is observing from afar as your child makes the often bumpy transition from dependence to independence. After years of being a responsible, caring, and "in-control" parent, this change can be frightening, rewarding, and nerve-wracking--sometimes all in the same week!Let's face it: once your child has gone to college, you have very little control. The college or university will treat your child as a legal adult, even though you know your child is far from independent. While you are no longer in a position to regulate, supervise, or direct your child's life, you do have a unique opportunity to influence your child's decisions and behavior. Your child will experiment with taking on fully adult responsibilities and privileges. What better time for you, too, to try out new ways of relating to and communicating with your child?The healthiest adult-to-adult relationships we've seen in families with grown children develop when the parents begin to adopt a consulting/coaching role during the college years. One wise new college parent told us, "I realize now that my job is to shift from being a supervisor to being a consultant."Becoming a Consultant: Adding a New Dimension to Your Parenting RoleThe word consultant comes from the Latin word consultare, which means "to discuss." While you have no doubt played many roles--caregiver, teacher, nurturer, adviser, provider, confidant, rule setter and enforcer, disciplinarian, and counselor--in raising your child to this stage of development, the college years present unique challenges in that you are now the parent of an emerging adult. While it is true that you will always be your child's parent, now is the time to add a new dimension to your parenting role. As your child begins to encounter adult responsibilities and choices, you can become a trusted consultant, assisting your child in making wise decisions and becoming fully independent. The shift to a consulting style of parenting does not happen overnight, but you will find many occasions in which it will be useful during the college years.Although we strongly believe that parents need to act as consultants, rather than as supervisors, when interacting with their college-aged children, we recognize that this approach may not fit every situation. You know your child; trust your instincts. If you sense that your child is in danger or is calling out for help, you may need to intervene. While it is important that you respect and trust your child and encourage independent problem-solving, there are times when you need to act. Chapter 10 will help you assess when it's appropriate for you to get involved in the problems and crises that can occur during college.In typical situations, however, a consulting approach based on trust, respect, and clear communication will be most effective.Essential Skills for ConsultantsWhat skills does a consultant employ? A consultant must communicate effectively so that he or she can teach, advise, and challenge in a way that offers support while encouraging practice in the development of problem-solving and decision-making skills. A consultant offers guidance based on experience and encourages an exploration of alternative approaches to problems and decisions. A consultant facilitates discussion by employing effective communication strategies.Communicating EffectivelyListening, combined with skillful questioning, can help you become a valued consultant to your child as he or she navigates the path from teenager to adult.ListeningThe key to effective consulting is active and reflective listening. For some of you, this approach will come naturally. For others it may seem awkward and artificial at first. You may be thinking, "Why shouldn't I just tell my child what to do?" or "Doesn't my child need to know what I expect?" While you may want to give advice and make your expectations clear, this approach usually stops the process of investigating alternatives and puts your child in the position of either accepting or rejecting your advice. If you start by really listening to your child, the outcome is more likely to be satisfying to both of you. Effective listening requires that you:• Make a sincere commitment to listen without evaluating or judging.• Wait patiently, even if your child struggles to express feelings and thoughts.• Take notice of verbal and nonverbal behaviors.• Check your assumptions and responses to make sure they reflect what your child is feeling.• Listen without trying to "fix" the problem.• Above all, try not to judge, moralize, manipulate, or "catastrophize" the situation.Some roadblocks that can hinder effective listening, include:• warning, threatening• providing solutions or "shoulds"• disagreeing, judging, criticizing, blaming• moralizing, preaching• interpreting, ridiculing, shaming• questioning and probing instead of listeningThese roadblocks strengthen the power imbalance between you and your child. Through consulting, you can empower your child to make decisions and act responsibly. This approach may seem tedious and drawn out, especially for those who like to come up with solutions and get things done. But it is important for parents to acknowledge that it is not their responsibility to solve their children's problems. If you take over, you're sending the message to your child that you don't feel he or she is competent. Your role as consultant is to provide support, encouragement, and information so that your child can explore alternatives and learn to solve his or her own problems.Closed and Open QuestionsA critical component of effective communication is to understand the difference between closed and open questions. Closed questions usually stop the flow of dialogue while open questions encourage continued dialogue. Few parents have escaped the frustration of the following kind of dialogue:PARENT (noticing your teenager putting on his coat): Where are you going?CHILD: Out.PARENT: When will you be back?CHILD: Later.This is a good example of asking closed questions. Not much information was shared because closed questions do not call on the responder to think. What if the parent had tried using open questions, as in the following example?PARENT: Tell me about your plans for tonight.CHILD: Well, Jason and I are going to the mall and then to a movie.PARENT: Can you tell me around what time you'll be back?CHILD: Oh, probably about midnight.Here are two dialogues. The first example uses closed questions, while the second uses open questions.DAD: How's school going?JEFF: Good.DAD: Do you like your classes so far?JEFF: Yeah.DAD: Did you get into that biology class you wanted?JEFF: Yup.DAD: So, do you have a lot of work?JEFF: Yeah, tons.DAD: Are you getting enough sleep?JEFF: Ha! Are you kidding? Nobody sleeps here.DAD: Are you having any fun?JEFF: Oh, yeah.DAD: What did you do last weekend?JEFF: Just hung out with friends.DAD: What did you do?JEFF: Nothing much really, we just hung out.DAD: Well, it's been great talking to you. I'll call you next week, okay?JEFF: Okay, Dad, catch ya later.You can see the difference in the following dialogue, which uses open questions.DAD: Hi, Jeff. How are you doing?JEFF: Good, Dad. What's up with you?DAD: Things are fine here. Is this a good time to talk?JEFF: Yeah, I guess.DAD: I was just sitting here wondering about what you were doing right now and how your classes are going. Tell me what your day was like.JEFF: Well, this morning I dragged myself out of bed around eight-thirty to go to my first class and then I had breakfast at the dining hall and just hung around until my eleven o'clock class. Then I came back to my room and crashed until my two-fifteen class. After that, I just hung out with my friends until dinnertime and now I have to study. I usually go to bed pretty late; last night I had to stay up 'til three A.M. to finish my English essay.DAD: It sounds like a pretty busy schedule. Tell me about your English essay.JEFF: Oh, we had to write about a childhood friend and describe, you know, his or her qualities that made them a good friend. I wrote about Tim.DAD: Really? It's been a long time since you've seen him, huh? What do you remember most about him?JEFF: I wrote about how he always came to our house because Mom baked cookies a lot. I also remember feeling kind of jealous 'cause Mom paid so much attention to him. DAD: So, how do you feel about your classes so far?JEFF: They're okay. I really like my biology class, and it's a good thing, because I spend an awful lot of time with class, sections, and labs.DAD: What is it that makes biology so interesting?JEFF: Well, we're doing this really cool unit on environmental hazards to wildlife.DAD: I just read about that the other day in the paper. What does your professor say about that trend?JEFF: Well, she says there are ways to stop it but it means we'd have to change the way we live and stop using up so many natural resources. It's pretty interesting.DAD: It sounds like it. What about your social life? How was your weekend?JEFF: It wasn't that much fun. I did go to a movie Saturday night with some guys on the floor. Oh, Dad, I gotta go--Dan's waiting for me to go to dinner. Talk to you later.DAD: Okay, Jeff. Take care.Open-ended questions help you engage your child in more meaningful conversations. If you want to help your child reflect on his experiences and come up with his own solutions to problems, open-ended questions are an essential tool. Parents who use open questions feel more a part of their child's life without coming off like the Grand Inquisitor.Jeff's father started out the conversation by showing respect for Jeff's schedule. He asked if this was a good time to talk. This set the tone for the conversation. It also meant that he could expect a few minutes of Jeff's undivided attention. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to carry on a conversation with your child when he is preoccupied or has a room full of friends unwinding from a day of classes.After making sure that this was a good time to talk, Jeff's father proceeded to show genuine interest in his son's experiences by asking a series of open questions. His open questions prompted much more than yes or no responses from Jeff and helped him get a deeper sense of Jeff's life at school. Moreover, this type of conversation allowed Jeff's father to model useful communication skills. It's helpful to remember that this dialogue represents an ideal conversation. Your child may not be as chatty as Jeff or may not feel comfortable opening up in this way. Still, it's worthwhile to practice using open questions in all of your important relationships. You can be a role model of an effective and respectful communicator."Why" Questions--Communication StoppersYou may have noticed that Jeff's father did not use any questions that started with "why"--even though there were many instances in the conversation when he might have wanted to ask why! "Why don't you get up a little earlier so you have time for breakfast before class?" "Why don't you start studying earlier in the evening so you can get to bed at a decent hour?""Why" questions are inherently judgmental and come off sounding critical. Even if you are genuinely curious and concerned about why your child behaves in a certain way, the "why" question will put your child on the defensive, which means that he won't be open to sharing his experience with you for fear of being judged. Instead of asking "why" questions, you can ask questions about feelings. His father could have asked Jeff, "How do you feel about your schedule?" or "It must be hard to feel so sleep-deprived."If your child is struggling with a problem, you can also try asking him how he would likethe situation to be different. For example, let's say your son is someone who needs eight to ten hours of sleep every night in order to feel okay the next day. You're alarmed that he's talking about going to bed late every night and dragging himself out of bed in the morning for class. Try putting the ball back in your child's court where it belongs by asking, "If you could wave a magic wand and create the perfect schedule, what would it be like?""I" Statements--Beyond BlamingIt's a rare parent who isn't tempted to jump in with solutions to dilemmas, especially when the child's college career or health may be in jeopardy. But usually the parent's response comes in the form of a warning or an ultimatum, such as "You're never going to get through college if you can't get up for class in the morning!" or "You'd better figure out a way to get your sleep or you're going to be a wreck when finals come around!"It's very difficult to express concerns without sliding into "you" messages, such as "You haven't done your work," or "You party too much and therefore you have rotten grades." Try to express "I" messages, such as "I worry about you when I hear that you're not eating properly or getting enough sleep," or "I'm concerned that you're spending so much time partying during the week." When a parent avoids blaming and expresses sincere and honest concerns through "I" messages, a child is drawn into the conversation in a fundamentally different way. The parent is able to communicate concerns without immediately putting the child on the defensive.The first year of college, in particular, can be pretty chaotic for students. As they experiment with their new lifestyle, the last thing they want to hear from home is that they're not doing it right. Although they may appear cool and in control, chances are they are as worried as you are about whether they can cope. But they will never admit it if they are confronted with a judging, blaming parent. Although it's frustrating to observe your child going through these adjustments, it's really important to do everything you can to reinforce your faith in your child's ability to manage life at school. At times, this requires a giant leap of faith in your child and a sincere commitment to trust that your child has the resources to deal with the consequences of his behavior.Acting as a ConsultantA consultant teaches, challenges, and supports. Inherent in the consulting relationship is an underlying trust and respect for the student as an emerging adult who is capable of learning how to manage his or her own life. The college years are a structured in-between period for most students in which they are treated as quasi-independent adults. Parenting a college student requiresthat you set aside many of your traditional parenting behaviors in favor of learning ways to teach, coach, and advise your child through the sometimes rocky transition from child to adult.This can be done in several ways. Using the communication skills outlined above, you can listen carefully, ask open questions, suggest alternatives, and encourage your child to take responsibility for finding solutions to problems. As a parent, you don't have to have all of the answers for your child.Encourage your child to take advantage of the many relationships that can be developed during college. Professors, staff members, work-study supervisors, coaches, and other students can also act as consultants to your child on campus. Plus, you can connect your child to people in your professional setting, your social group, or in the wider community at home.It is ironic that, by giving less advice and allowing your child to have ownership of decisions, your child will more likely seek your involvement in future decisions. And this, we assume, is your goal: to be involved in your child's life as a loving and helpful parent. In accepting a consulting role, you don't give up your role as a parent, you merely expand it in preparation for an adult-to-adult relationship with your child in the years to come.The following scenarios further demonstrate ways in which parents can use consulting skills to lay the groundwork for a new kind of relationship with their college-aged child.
The first few weeks at college have been hard for your daughter, Rachel. She calls home often and appears to be having trouble adjusting. She was home for fall break and seemed fine, but a week or so after she returned to school, you had the following conversation with her:MOM: Hello?RACHEL: Hi, Mom. It's me.MOM: Oh, hi, Rachel. How are you doing?RACHEL: Not so great.MOM: What do you mean?RACHEL: I just hate it here. I want to come home.MOM: What's the matter, honey?RACHEL: I don't know. I just don't like it here.MOM: You seemed to be okay when you were home last week. What happened?RACHEL: Nothing in particular. I just don't feel like I belong here. I'm so lonely and depressed all the time.MOM: Don't you think you should give it more time? You've only been there two months or so.RACHEL: I know, but it seems like forever.MOM: Are you making any friends?RACHEL: Not really. Everybody seems like they're loving school so much. It's sickening, really. I can't relate to anybody.MOM: Your roommate seemed like a nice girl.RACHEL: Well, she may seem nice to you, but all she cares about is guys and going to frat parties.MOM: Why don't you go with her?RACHEL: Mom! I hate frat parties. It's just a bunch of stupid people getting wasted every weekend.MOM: You mean there's drinking? I thought the college had rules about that.RACHEL: Mom, you just don't understand. That's all people do here.MOM: What about your classes?RACHEL: I don't understand why they make us take all of this introductory stuff--it's so boring.MOM: What's so boring?RACHEL: Everything!MOM: But, Rachel, you were so excited about going to college. What happened?RACHEL: I just hate it here. Can I come home?What's on Your MindI don't know what to do.I wonder if Rachel can make it at college.Should I let her come home?What's on Your Child's MindI'm miserable.I don't fit in here.I'm scared about what will happen to me if I quit.What's Going On
The first few weeks, and often months, of college are a big adjustment for new students. Everything is different, and many students miss the predictability of home and their high school friends. Even for children who are wildly enthusiastic about going to college, the reality of college life can beoverwhelming and scary. It's difficult for parents to understand what is really going on with their child when they get a phone call like this one. Your own fears can make it hard to listen to your child's fears and unhappiness. It's tempting to want to fix things for your child when you hear this kind of pain.
What to Do• Try to listen to your child's anxieties.• Express your empathy for her situation.• Let her know that you sympathize with the difficulties of adjusting to college.• Express your confidence in and love for her.What to Avoid• Letting your concern about her situation dominate the conversation.• Judging her ability to deal with college.• Dismissing her fears and telling her everything will be okay if she just sticks it out.
Missing Home: The Replay
Let's look at how this conversation could have gone if the parent had adopted the role of consultant with her child.MOM: Hello?RACHEL: Hi, Mom. It's me.MOM: How are you doing?RACHEL: I'm feeling awful. I hate it here. I want to come home.MOM: Oh, Rachel, I'm sorry you're feeling so sad. Tell me what's going on.RACHEL: I'm just so miserable and lonely.MOM: You sound really unhappy.RACHEL: I am. I just don't fit in here.MOM: So, you're feeling pretty out of it, huh? Are you kind of homesick, too?RACHEL: Yeah, I really miss Jen and Chris. I don't have any real friends here.MOM: It's pretty hard to try to get used to all the things you have to deal with there, and meet other kids you can relate to.RACHEL: All the girls on my floor are so into the fraternity scene. All they can think about is going to frat parties on the weekends.MOM: That must make you feel pretty alone, huh?RACHEL: Yeah, I just feel so out of it.MOM: I guess you're wondering if you'll ever fit in.RACHEL: What if I don't? What if this isn't the place for me?MOM: Well, you can always change your mind and go to college somewhere else, you know.RACHEL: Yeah, I guess I could. But it would be such a hassle to start all over.MOM: Yes, it might be, but the most important thing is that you feel comfortable and are able to do your work in college.RACHEL: It's hard to feel good about my classes when I'm so depressed. It's really hard to get used to this.MOM: I know it must be, and I can understand how hard this is for you. Is there anything I could do to be helpful?RACHEL: No, not really. I guess I just have to cope, huh, Mom?MOM: I think you'll know what to do and I trust that you'll figure it out. You know that your dad and I want to do what we can to help you get through this tough period.RACHEL: I know. Thanks, Mom. I guess I'd better start studying for my test tomorrow. I'll talk to you later. Okay?MOM: Okay. Do you want me to give you a call tomorrow to see how you're doing?RACHEL: I guess so. Call me after eight o'clock though.MOM: Okay. Well, take care and good luck on the test.What's on Your MindI'm really worried that Rachel is so unhappy.I wonder what I can do to help.If she quits college now, what will she do?What's on Your Child's MindI'm so miserable here.I really want to quit, but what would I do then?Maybe I wouldn't be happy anywhere.What's Going On
Rachel is experiencing normal adjustment issues. She hasn't found a social group that fits her temperament and therefore feels different from everyone. She also feels the stress of the first college-level exams ahead. It's normal for her to want to quit, but she's worried about what she'll do if she does quit. Rachel needs to share her worries with her mom and, once she's done that, she probably feels much better about her situation.
What to Do• Remember that this is your child's life and your child's dilemma.• Empathize with her feelings of loneliness and depression.• Let her know that you care and ask if you can be helpful.What to Avoid• Coming up with solutions ("Why don't you join the Habitat for Humanity group? You loved that in high school.") before you've really listened and responded to her feelings.• Warning, threatening, or moralizing: "If you don't make friends soon, you're really going to feel left out later. All the kids there can't be jerks. You just need to try harder to meet some nice kids."What You Need to Know
We know how hard (and time-consuming) it can be simply to listen to your child and allow her to feel what she's feeling without jumping in with solutions or "shoulds." In the second dialogue, Rachel's mother reflected the basic attitude that fosters a relationship with an emerging adult child. She listened and resisted the impulse to come up with solutions to Rachel's problems. This can be a particularly difficult shift for both of you if your child has relied on you to solve her problems. If she has, you need to make this shift with compassion, but also with the resolve to help your child mature so that she can manage her daily life without your constant assistance.
Choosing a Major
Thankfully, not all consulting situations with your child are fraught with worry. Sometimes your child simply needs a rational, practical adviser, or coach, such as in the case below.
When your daughter, Tanisha, was home on vacation during her first year of college, you had the following conversation:TANISHA: Mom, I'm having a lot of trouble deciding what I should major in. I really like English and history and I'm getting good grades in both. What do you think I should do?MOM: I'm not sure just how to advise you. Tell me more about what you're thinking.TANISHA: Well, I've heard that some people do a double major and I'm wondering if I should do that.MOM: What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing a double major?TANISHA: I guess if I chose to double major, I wouldn't have to make this hard decision between the two but I might have to stay an extra semester to get in all of the requirements for both majors. And if I double major, I won't have time to take many electives, like the photography course I've been wanting to take.MOM: It sounds like you might have to give up quite a bit just to avoid making a hard decision, huh?TANISHA: I guess.MOM: Have you looked at the upper-level courses in history and English? Do they seem as interesting as the courses you're taking now?TANISHA: I haven't really checked that out. Maybe I should. I do know that there are fewer requirements for a history major than there are for an English major.MOM: Maybe if you decided to major in history, then, you'd have spaces in your schedule for quite a few English courses, too. Have you talked to your adviser about this?TANISHA: No, not yet. I just felt kind of funny about it because my adviser is an English professor. She might be mad if I tell her I like history better.MOM: What about talking to a history professor?TANISHA: Yeah, I guess I could. My American history professor from last semester was pretty easy to talk to.MOM: Having a good adviser in your major seems important. Have you talked to other students who are majoring in history or English? Maybe they could give you some good advice.TANISHA: Yeah, I know a couple of kids. But what about a job after college? Do you think it matters what I major in?MOM: Well, from everything I've heard, your major doesn't really matter if you're doing a liberal arts degree. What matters is if you like it and do well in it.TANISHA: I guess it's not like deciding between painting and premed, is it?MOM: No, but I know it's a big decision for you anyway.TANISHA: I think I'll talk to some more kids at school and maybe talk to the history professor again.MOM: That sounds like a good plan. I know you'll do well, whatever you decide.What's on Your MindI don't see that there's much difference between history and English for Tanisha.I can see it's hard for her to make this decision.I wish the professors would do more to help Tanisha make this decision.What's on Your Child's MindI'm really confused.I have to decide soon.What if I make the wrong decision?What's Going On
Choosing a college major is a big decision for most college students, one that many struggle with during their first two years. It's not uncommon for a student to change majors several times before settling on one course of study.
What to Do• Encourage your child to seek all of the advice available by talking to academic advisers, faculty members in departments, other students, and staff members in academic and career counseling offices.• Listen carefully to your child's concerns about this choice and ask open questions such as "What are the advantages and disadvantages of each major?"• Remember that this is a time of great exploration and change and that your child's behavior is normal.What to Avoid• Trying to talk your child into a certain major because of its alleged career potential.• Worrying that your child is hopelessly confused and unable to make a good decision.• Dismissing this as a trivial decision, especially if your child is deciding between relatively similar majors.What You Need to Know
You have been an important adviser in your child's life and this remains true during the college years. Tanisha's mother did an excellent job of helping her daughter move closer to making a difficult decision. She did this by asking open questions and by reinforcing Tanisha's ability to research her options and make a choice. So often, what your child needs is a sounding board for her ideas and thoughts and reassurance that you have confidence in her.
Your son, Scott, has expressed some doubts about his computer science major and now, while home on spring break, he makes an unsettling announcement.SCOTT: I'm really freaking out about declaring a major. I have to decide by next month and I'm so confused.DAD: I thought you were going to major in computer science. What's the problem?SCOTT: Well, I don't think that computer science is right for me, and I'm not doing that well in my computer science classes. But I'm doing really well in my political science class. The professor is so smart and funny; maybe I should major in political science.DAD: I don't understand. You've been so sure about computer science. You loved everything about computers in high school. Maybe you're just taking the wrong computer science classes. And why aren't you doing well? Maybe you're not putting in the time it takes to get good grades.SCOTT: Dad, that's not it. I try, but it's just so hard and it's not very interesting. I didn't expect computer science to be like this.DAD: You know there are a lot of great jobs for computer science majors. I can't understand why suddenly you're so discouraged. You seemed happy about your classes when you were home for break in December.SCOTT: Dad, you just don't understand. Computer science is really hard, and it's not very interesting, either. It's almost impossible to get good grades. Do you want me to flunk out?DAD: No, I certainly don't want you to flunk out. I just want to understand why you're so undecided and why you're changing what you always said you wanted to study. Maybe you should try to get some help with your courses. Isn't there anyone who can tutor you?SCOTT: I don't know, but that's not the point, Dad. I just don't like computer science anymore.DAD: But, what will you do if you major in political science? I'm not too happy about spending all of this money for you to be unemployed when you graduate!SCOTT: I'm sure I can get a job if that's what you're so worried about!DAD: Yeah, like what? I bet there are a lot of political science majors flipping burgers. I think you should just stick with computer science and work a little harder. I know you can do it if you try.What's on Your MindWhat's going on with Scott? He seems so confused.I worry about him changing majors.What will he do with a major in political science?What's on Your Child's MindI feel like such a failure.What are my parents going to think if I change majors?I hate my computer science courses.What's Going On
Scott's father finds it difficult to deal with the confusion that Scott is experiencing. Instead of listening to Scott, he is dominating the conversation with his own concerns. Neither Scott nor his father are really listening to the other person's point of view, hence the conversation ends up being a series of accusations, judgments, and threats. Scott's father has legitimate concerns about how changing majors could affect Scott's future and whether Scott is really making an effort. He may also believe that he has a right to control Scott's choice of major because he's footing the bill for college. He may convince Scott to remain a computer science major, but in doing so he will take away Scott's capacity to make this decision about his own life. It's tempting for parents to jump into the void and take responsibility for decisions when their children are confused.
What to Do• Listen to your child's worries. Empathize with his confusion.• Ask for information and respond to feelings before telling your child what you think about the situation.• Ask questions that will help your child come to his own conclusions.What to Avoid• Letting your concerns be most important.• Criticizing your son for being so indecisive.• Warning him about the dire future consequences of his decision.• Forcing your child to stick with a major that you think is more sensible.Changing Majors: The Replay
Now, see the difference in the same conversation when Dad communicates as a consultant:SCOTT: Dad, I'm kinda freaked out right now. I'm not sure I want to be a computer science major anymore.DAD: Really? What changed your mind?SCOTT: I'm just not doing well in my computer science classes and I have a political science class that I really like. It's so much more interesting than computer science.DAD: What is it that you like about your political science class?SCOT T: I'm learning so much about government and the consequence of policy decisions--it's amazing. It's about people's lives, not just numbers.DAD: So, you're disillusioned with crunching numbers and learning about programming machines, huh?SCOTT: Yeah, it's just so boring and it's hard, too. No one in my computer science classes is doing well.DAD: Is it the difficulty of the work or the fact that it's not interesting that disturbs you most?SCOTT: I guess it's both. I just don't think I'd be happy doing this kind of work forever.DAD: And the political science course seems interesting and fun right now.SCOTT: Yeah, my professor is great. He's an amazing lecturer and has a way of making the information interesting. I got an A on my first paper.DAD: That's terrific, Scott. It sounds like political science really interests you.SCOTT: But, maybe I'm wimping out because computer science is so hard.DAD: Do you think that you're going to be a failure if you don't study computer science?SCOTT: Well, sort of. I mean that's what I came here to study.DAD: Maybe it would help if you had an idea of what kind of jobs people with computer science and political science degrees have after they finish college.SCOTT: Well, I guess computer science majors just sit in a cubicle somewhere and program computers all day. I don't know what political science majors do.DAD: It seems like you're a little worried because you're not doing so well in your CS classes and you also feel the pressure of having to declare a major soon. Is that true?SCOTT: Yeah, I'm pretty sure I don't want to be a CS major, but I don't know what to do. I've always thought I'd work with computers.DAD: And you wonder if you should declare a political science major after having taken only one course.SCOTT: I don't know what to do. I can't believe I have to declare a major in a month.DAD: What would you like to do?SCOTT: Well, I'd like to have more time to decide, but if I had to decide today, I wouldn't be a computer science major. What do you think I should do?DAD: It's not my decision, but I'd be happy to try and help you make a choice. Would you be interested in spending a day or two with John Warner, my friend who has the small computer business? Maybe if you saw firsthand what computer science folks do at work it would help you make a decision. Or you could talk to a professor in computer science and one in political science and ask them what their graduates are doing now. I think your mom knows someone at the bank who majored in political science in college. She could introduce you to her.SCOTT: Well, I guess I could do that.DAD: Would you like John's number? You can call him to see if he'd let you stop by and observe for a day or two.SCOTT: Okay, I'll give him a call, but I'm not sure it will change my mind.DAD: Maybe just having more information will help you make your decision. I have faith in your ability to choose what's right for you.SCOTT: Yeah. I'll call him tomorrow.What's on Your MindScott seems confused about his major and that worries me.This is a good opportunity for Scott to explore his interests.I hope I can be helpful to Scott as he sorts this out.What's on Your Child's MindI don't want to disappoint my parents but I hate computer science.Maybe I'm just not willing to invest the time to do well in computer science.I wonder what I really want to study in college. Political science is so much more interesting.What's Going On
Parents' expectations can get dashed as college students explore courses of study and seem confused about their direction. It's not unusual for students to change majors--even several times. Scott's father gave him the greatest gift a parent can give--to help his son trust in his own ability to make decisions. Communicating and caring in this way sets the stage for a more satisfying and respectful dialogue that will carry Scott and his father through many changes throughout the college years.
What to Do• Listen to your child's dilemma openly.• Check your assumptions by repeating your child's concerns and asking if you're hearing correctly.• Suggest ways that your child can get more information to solve his problem.• Remind your child that you have confidence in his ability to make decisions and choices.What to Avoid• Criticizing your child for being confused and indecisive.• Threatening dire consequences if he changes majors.• Making your expectations more important than his exploration.What You Need to Know
In our experience, students who feel they must take their parents' advice and direction are ultimately less successful than students who strive to reach their own goals. This doesn't mean that you can't share your feelings about decisions or that you can't take the lead in asking questions,laying out alternatives, and providing suggestions. You do, however, want your son or daughter to take ownership for developing solutions to problems.While you can't convince your child to approach every decision as you would, you can guide him through a process that will help in addressing problems and making difficult decisions. Letting your child know that you're willing to examine alternatives, try on other points of view, and experiment with your own attitudes and beliefs, teaches him a decision-making process that will be useful throughout his life.
Your daughter decided to go on a camping trip with her new boyfriend over fall break. She calls you from the Smoky Mountains at eleven o'clock on Saturday night and announces that she hates camping and her boyfriend, and wants you to come and get her because she still has three days of fall break to spend at home.
What's on Your MindWhat's really going on?Is my daughter in danger?Should I rescue her or let her deal with the consequences of her decision?What's on Your Child's MindI hate it here. It's cold and there's nothing to do.Boy, was I stupid to come on this trip with my boyfriend. He's a real jerk.I just want to go home.What's Going On
Your daughter is miserable and really wishes that you would bail her out of this unpleasant situation. She made a decision to go on this trip without knowing her boyfriend very well. Now she's stuck for a long weekend with him alone in the woods and she's finding out that she doesn't like him very much after all.
What to Do• Find out if she is safe.• Ask her, "What changed your mind about this trip?" and "What are your thoughts about getting out of this situation? How would you like me to help?"• Be frank with her about what you're willing to do to help her, once you've determined that she's not in danger.• Help her brainstorm her options: She could ask her boyfriend to drive her home, she could ask him to get her to the nearest bus station, or she could decide to stick it out.What to Avoid• Jumping in the car and going to get her.• Feeling that it's your job, as her parent, to get her out of this situation.• Criticizing her for going on the trip in the first place.• Blaming her for ruining your weekend and making you worry.What You Need to Know
Once you've determined that your daughter isn't in danger, you can be an effective adviser, helping her to brainstorm solutions to her dilemma. In asking her how she would like to resolve her problem, you reinforce her ability to evaluate her situation and take action. It's not appropriate, or helpful, for you to simply approve or disapprove; it is your role to listen and support your child in examining her options and recognizing the consequences of her behavior. While fall break may be ruined, she will also have learned something about herself--that even though she made a poor choice, she is in charge of her behavior and decisions. Parents who rob their children of experiencing the consequences of their actions impede their progress toward responsible adulthood. Better a wasted fall break than a child who learns that someone else has to take responsibility for her actions and choices.Even though consulting often seems like an inefficient exercise, it's helpful to remember that consulting is like teaching and coaching. No one is born with these skills fully developed. As you try out these new skills, you need to be patient with your child who is also confronting new situations that demand he or she take on adult responsibilities.Academic Probation
You're visiting campus for a special spring weekend and your son, Brian, seems nervous and preoccupied. You finally ask what's wrong.BRIAN: Well, it's bad news. I was put on academic probation. I failed a course last semester and didn't do too well in the other courses, either.DAD: When did you find out? Why didn't you tell us?BRIAN: I just got the letter from the dean this week. I thought I could do better this semester.DAD: Well, are you doing better?BRIAN: Not that much.DAD: What do you mean, "Not that much"?BRIAN: Well, I'm having trouble with chemistry, and I'm getting way behind in a couple of my other courses, too.DAD: I can't believe this. Do you know how much money it's costing me to put you through college? I know you have the ability. Why aren't you applying yourself?BRIAN: I am, Dad. It's just so hard.DAD: Of course, it's hard. What did you think it would be? You have to work hard in college. It sounds like you've just been goofing off. You'd better straighten out your priorities and get off of probation.BRIAN: I'm not sure I can. I'm already so far behind and my midterm grades haven't been so hot.DAD: What do you mean you're not sure you can? Of course, you can. You just need to try harder. You were such a good student in high school. What is going on here?BRIAN: I don't know, Dad. I guess I'm just a loser.DAD: You will be, if that's your attitude.What's on Your MindI can't believe how hard I'm working to keep Brian in college and he's just screwing off.I'm really mad at him.I'm so disappointed in Brian and his attitude stinks.He'd better not be partying all the time.What's on Your Child's MindI feel lousy. Maybe I can't handle college work.My dad is really mad at me. But he doesn't understand how hard this is.What if I flunk out? What will I do?What's Going On
It's not unusual for the first year of college to present real challenges and disappointments to students and parents alike. Even the student who has done well in high school may find college work overwhelming, especially when he has to be in charge of every aspect of his life away from home. Parents are usually shocked when their child is put on academic probation and angry that their tuition money is being wasted.
What to Do• Try to put your feelings on hold and listen to your child.• Tell him that, while you're disappointed in his performance, you have confidence in his ability to do the work.• Ask if he's thought of any ways he might salvage this semester's work.• Suggest that he get help, either by asking his professors, going to the learning skills center, or getting a tutor to get him through this semester.What to Avoid• Blaming him for being in this mess. He knows he's screwed up.• Warning him that you're going to cut off financial support.• Moralizing and preaching about what he could have done better--the point is, he didn't!• Issuing ultimatums: You'd better get it together, or else!Academic Probation: The Replay
Your consulting skills will come in handy when your child faces a serious situation and you're a bit baffled about what to do. In this replay, Brian's dad demonstrates an ideal response, which we realize is hard to do in such an emotionally charged situation.BRIAN: Well, it's bad news. I was put on academic probation. I failed a course last semester and didn't do too well in the other courses, either.DAD: What does academic probation mean?BRIAN: It means that I'm outta here if I don't get at least a 2.0 GPA this semester and it doesn't look too good right now.DAD: When did you find this out?BRIAN: I just got the letter this week. I guess I should have told you, but I thought this semester would be better. It's just that the work here is so hard.DAD: I've been wondering why you seemed so edgy. You must be feeling pretty rotten about this.BRIAN: Well, what am I supposed to feel? I'm flunking out of school. I just don't know what happened. I guess last semester I fell too far behind and couldn't catch up when finals came around. Maybe I should just take a year off like they suggested and try to figure out what to do next.DAD: Tell me more about what you've been thinking.BRIAN: I'm thinking you and Mom must be really upset with me. I don't know, maybe I need to go home and take some courses at the community college. I'm sure I could do okay there.DAD: Have you decided what you'll do for the rest of the semester here?BRIAN: I don't know. What do you think I should do?DAD: What I think isn't really important. You need to decide what you're going to do.BRIAN: You always say that! Sometimes I just wish you'd yell at me and tell me what to do.DAD: Well, I could yell at you to work harder and get better grades. Would that make it happen?BRIAN: I guess not.DAD: Your mom and I aren't around every day to make sure you study. It's your responsibility now. We'll be disappointed if you don't try, but we can't make you do what it takes from home.BRIAN: I know. It's just so hard.DAD: It sounds like you want to stay here and try to finish. Is that right?BRIAN: I guess I should. After all, you and Mom have spent so much money on this year. Maybe I could leave with a few credits anyway.DAD: Do you see any way that your mother or I can help you right now?BRIAN: Well, I should have done it before, but I could hire a tutor if you guys want to spring for it.DAD: I think that would be a good investment. I'd be willing to pay for it if you think it will help.BRIAN: I guess I just need to try to get it together and see what happens.DAD: That sounds like a good plan. I have a lot of confidence in your abilities. You'll know what's right for you. And you know we'll love you no matter what, don't you?BRIAN: Yeah, Dad. Thanks.What's on Your MindBrian is in a lot of trouble.I wish we had known about his failing grades.I'm not sure he has the resilience to get through this.What's on Your Child's MindBoy, are my parents going to be pissed at me.I can't believe this has happened to me.Maybe I'm not smart enough for college.What's Going On
Students learn a lot about themselves during the first year of college, and not all of the lessons are easy ones. Many are asked to take time off to reassess their goals when they are failing courses or are unable to maintain an acceptable grade point average. Some students need extra time to mature into the responsibilities of college life. If Brian had been assertive and taken the initiative to get help in his first semester, he may not have been asked to take a leave. This may seem like the end of the world for your child or for you, but it can also serve as a wake-up call that your child needs extra help in handling college work.
What to Do• Listen to your child's feelings.• Empathize with his experience and try to keep your ego out of it. You may find it's easier to do this if you can imagine advising the son or daughter of a friend.• Ask for clarification when needed. Ask for his point of view and then listen, without evaluating it.• Reinforce your confidence in his ability to manage this difficult situation.• Help him problem-solve, encouraging him to make short-term and long-term decisions when he is ready.What to Avoid• Coming up with hasty solutions that will make you feel better.• Dwelling on how upset you are.• Punishing him: Having to leave school will be punishment enough. He'll learn more from the real consequences of his behavior.What You Need to Know
In this replay, Brian's father exhibited superior consulting skills in a difficult situation. Becoming this skillful doesn't happen overnight and this response may not feel comfortable for you in the beginning. You will be on the way to being an effective consultant, however, just by taking the first steps: trying to focus on your child rather than on your own feelings of anger and disappointment, and recognizing that your role is to help your child solve his problem, not to solve it for him.As parents, we have little control over what happens to our children in college, but we do have control over how we respond to the situation. Keep your eye on the end goal--the issue here is to get through this crisis and help your child land on his feet again. This doesn't mean that you can't express your fears and desires to your child. It's just that this isn't the time to do it. This situation calls for empathy and a reasoned response, not panic. It might be helpful, however, if you share a story from your life in which you felt like a failure and describe how you felt and what you did about the situation. Children need to know that their parents have weathered storms in the past and that these experiences, although tough, are ultimately manageable.If you feel, after some time has elapsed, that your child is still floundering and not able to be productive, it may be the time to express your concerns. It may be that your child doesn't have the necessary level of maturity at this time to manage life in college or it may be that he or she has just ignored work in favor of partying. Or it may be that your child has a serious problem--drug or alcohol abuse or depression--that needs your attention. We offer help in assessing a range of problems in Chapter 10. Remember, though, that you should avoid using "you" messages, such as "You haven't done your work," or "You're just lying around all day when you should be studying." Try to express "I" messages, such as "I don't feel I can continue to support your education if you're not willing to put in the time to get decent grades," or "I'm concerned that you're not motivated right now to do college work."When your child fails at something, he or she is the first to recognize that failure. It's not necessary to criticize or blame. Doing so doesn't change the failure into a success; it only servesto make your child feel more helpless. An effective consultant sees a problem or crisis and responds as Brian's dad did--listening, reflecting, empathizing, suggesting, and supporting. This takes time and patience, but it is well worth the effort on your part.One of the greatest joys of parenting is witnessing your child take on the responsibilities, rewards, and challenges of fully independent adulthood. The college years present a unique opportunity for you, as a parent, to begin to relate to your child as an emerging adult and to adopt behaviors that will serve you well in the years to come.Helicopter ParentingThe term "helicopter parent" was first used in 1977 by Jim Fay and Foster Cline, cofounders of the Love and Logic parent education center in Golden, Colorado. In recent years, the label has been widely used to describe parents who "hover" over every aspect of their children's lives, from conception through the college years and beyond. In A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, Hara Marano, an editor-at-large of Psychology Today, argued that 60 to 70 percent of all parents today are helicopter parents.There are many reasons for the rise of helicopter parenting, but most observers agree that it gained real traction in the early 1980s when events conspired to create an environment in which parenting became a fundamentally different activity than it had been in earlier generations. At that time, the mid-to late-wave baby boomers (those born between 1950 and 1963) began having fewer children and having them later in life. They gave birth to the new Millennial Generation, children born into the Era of the Child. They were the parents who hung BABY ON BOARD signs in their mini-vans, complete with the latest, legally mandated baby car seats. This was the beginning of a national preoccupation with child health and safety and the baby boomers, rejecting their own parents' hands-off parenting style, became the most involved generation of parents in American history. They began planning their kids' lives when they were still in utero. They stuffed their preschoolers' schedules with enrichment activities and continued to obsess over their trophy kids through every developmental stage from nursery school through the college years and beyond. The boomers, infamous when they were students for profoundly changing the face of higher education in the late '60s, had changed it again as parents of college students.Raising children had become the most vital endeavor of their lives. Parenting went from being a natural life event to becoming a professionalized enterprise, with children the objects of constant scrutiny and transcendent meaning. At the same time, new brain research supported the idea that parents could affect their child's intellectual development even before they wereborn. Who doesn't remember the tummy packs playing Mozart to the fetus in order to stimulate brain activity? Parents came to believe that their extraordinary efforts in raising their children could result in superior children. Add to that the increasing competition for spots at the best universities, due to the population boom that characterized the Millennials, and you have a "perfect storm" of events, resulting in the type of hyperparenting that has set the standard for parenting behavior and led many parents to become "helicopters."The baby boomers, often on the cutting edge of social change, changed the practice of parenting and influenced the next generation of parents--the X Generation. Although the X Generation, children of the first wave of baby boomers, were arguably the least protected--they were the latchkey kids whose parents divorced in unprecedented numbers and whose mothers eagerly entered the full-time labor force in the 1970s--they have continued and even escalated the parenting behaviors initiated by the mid-to late-wave baby boomers.One interesting outgrowth of this type of parenting has been the extraordinarily close relationships between parents and kids. In overwhelming numbers, today's college students report that they genuinely like and respect their parents. This is quite a departure from previous generations. While on the surface this appears to be a positive development (and in many cases it is), the flip side of this closeness can be an unhealthy dependence on parents. Despite parents pumping their kids up with constant support and positive regard, many children in this generation are remarkably fragile, especially when confronted with adversity. They haven't developed the capacity to face the bumps in the road and work out problems independently.Let's look at this from the child's point of view. If your parents are obsessed with your achievement, you are not allowed to fail. If every sports team you've played on results in a trophy for every kid, you have never experienced the disappointment of losing and learned how to deal with those feelings. If your parents insist on every accommodation for you and never let you out of that protective bubble, it's likely that you feel pretty helpless facing adult problems and responsibilities on your own.So, Are You a Helicopter Parent?If we're honest, we could all admit to a bit of hovering; naturally we want our kids to be happy, healthy, and successful in life. We probably all know someone who goes a little overboard in the parenting arena, micromanaging everything that happens and taking an active role in making sure that every possible obstacle to a child's success is removed.This phenomenon has become so pervasive that the College Board, which oversees the Student Achievement Tests (SATs) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs, developed a survey for parents of high school students to determine if they were helicopter parents with regard to the college admissions process. Here are some questions we've developed for college parents to help you decide if you fall into that category:1. Are you in constant contact with your child?2. Do you feel bad about yourself if your child does not do well?3. Do you make academic decisions for your child?4. Do you "take over" when your child is in distress?5. Are you likely to intervene if your child has a problem with a class or a roommate?6. Have you ever talked to a faculty member about your child's grades?7. Have you ever confronted a coach about your child's performance in a sport?8. Have you ever edited or rewritten an academic paper for your child?9. Do you see your child's successes or failures as a reflection on you?10. Do you do everything possible to make sure your child does experience the negative consequence of his or her behavior? If you answered yes to all of these questions, you may actually be a Black Hawk helicopter parent!Here are several reasons why helicopter parenting a college student is detrimental. HELEN JOHNSON founded and directed Cornell University’s first Parents’ Program and is now engaged in her own consulting business with college parents and universities. CHRISTINE SCHELAS-MILLER teaches a course on adolescence and emerging adulthood in the department of human development at Cornell University and coordinates student advising as the assistant director of undergraduate studies. She was previously an associate dean of students at Cornell.