Parental guidance

January 23, 2004

Pupils' transition from school to university can be hardest for mums and dads, says Helen Johnson

Twenty years ago, the notion of "parent relations" in higher education in the US was virtually unheard of. When the baby boom generation began sending its kids to college, things changed.

In 1990, I was appointed to direct Cornell University's first parents' programme and I witnessed a disturbing trend - parents inappropriately involved in every aspect of their child's life, from the college admissions process through graduation to landing a first job. Today's hyper-attentive parents have been more involved in every stage of their child's development than any generation in American history, and they are not "letting go" when their kids go to college.

Colleges and universities across the US have responded by creating special parents' offices on campus, offering orientation sessions, parents' weekends and routine communication through the web and email. While well-meaning, too often these efforts are thinly veiled attempts to placate the most vociferous parents or to solicit funds from the wealthiest. Most administrators have not given serious thought as to how parents could be involved in educationally and developmentally sound ways.

In the UK, parents are already taking a keen interest in the pros and cons of university life and that is likely to grow if the vote on top-up fees goes through next week.

Here then is some advice on how best to involve them.

First, do what you do best. Educate your parents before they hit the quad with their progeny in tow. Help parents to understand the critical developmental tasks of late adolescence: the quest for individual identity and autonomy that makes the college years a particularly intense period of exploring and experimenting with values and lifestyles. Parents need to realise that parenting a university student is going to be a fundamentally different activity. Universities can help them make the necessary shift in parenting style from that of "in control" parent to "mentoring" parent.

After all, when a child attains the age of majority, parents lose control but they can still wield enormous positive influence through supportive guidance.

Second, talk to parents about their expectations and help them align these with the realities of university life. Be honest about serious problems or issues on campus. Parents worry about safety, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. Let parents know where they can turn for advice while protecting your students' rights to confidentiality.

Third, begin early with your admissions literature. Be specific about what you consider to be appropriate involvement. Take a proactive rather than reactive approach; it will save you time and aggravation in the long run.

Don't encourage parents to be involved if you don't have structures in place to channel their energies in positive ways.

Fourth, create a parents' council to advise you on issues of interest to parents. The most successful programmes in the US have parents' councils that do much of the work of communicating with parents, organising special events and keeping the institution appraised of their concerns. Use events, such as campus visits prior to admission, orientation sessions or parents' weekends to educate as well as to entertain parents.

Above all, resist falling prey to the idea that parents (or students) are simply consumers. Education is an interactive process explored by students and faculty within an educational institution, not a "transaction" between the parents' cheque book and the bursar's office.

While some parents are unreasonably demanding, most are like parents in any era - they want their kids to get into a good university, do well and graduate with competencies that will allow them to be self-supporting.

You can harness parents' energies as partners in the service of your most important mission - that of educating their sons and daughters.

Helen E. Johnson is a consultant on parent relations to colleges and universities and is co-author of Don't Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years . She has managed parents' programmes at Cornell University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Details:

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