As your child heads off to college, you are probably experiencing many emotions. That is only natural. It means that you recognize the enormity of the step that your child is taking. Remember how it felt when he headed to kindergarten, or got behind the wheel of the car for the first time? In many ways, this new phase is similar.
It is important to remember that this is a new stage for you as well as for your student. As the parent of a college freshman, your role is changing in significant ways. We’re often so busy focusing on our student that we forget that this is a transition for us as well.
Your coaching role
If your student is going to be living away from home, you know that your home-life will be different – more food, less laundry, more quiet, fewer dirty dishes. You’ll no longer be in the middle of it all with the action swirling around you.
So you now have a choice. You can feel lost and useless, or you can embrace your new role – as coach. Like any good coach, there comes a time to step back and observe the results of your hard work.
No matter how important the “big game” is, the coach is on the sidelines. No matter how much he may want to, the coach can’t play the game for the players. But if the coach has done his work in the pre-season, during all of those long practice hours, the players know what to do on the field. As a parent, we need to know that we’ve done our “pre-season” work. We need to trust our student to get onto the field and play the game.
We also need to remember that the coach has a job to do on the sidelines of the game. The players need him there. The coach gives suggestions about plays, congratulates and supports, scolds, cajoles, and sometimes registers displeasure. The coach is involved in the game, even though he’s not on the field.
And sometimes, the coach needs to take the player into the locker room and give him a talking to so the player will “shape up” and play the rest of the game differently.
Some of the best athletes in the world credit their coaches for their success. Like good coaches, we have a place during the college years. Being on the sidelines is not being out of the game. If we can embrace our role as coach, we can help our college student to be an Olympic star!
What does good college parent coaching look like?
We’d like to offer five coaching suggestions for parents of college students.
Remind your student that he should not expect you to deal with his issues.
When problems arise, encourage your college student to deal with them rather than expect you to deal with them. This is part of the growing independence that your student is practicing. Rather than you picking up the phone to call – the professor, the advisor, the registrar, the housing office, the Dean – encourage your student to contact the appropriate person. In some rare instances, you may need to step in, but it is often much less often than you think. Step in only after your student has exhausted all other options.
Help him think through who he needs to talk to, how he might approach the problem, what information he needs to obtain, what questions he might ask, what outcome he is seeking. He may need you to be involved, but that involvement is with him rather than directly with the college.
Encourage your child to do something.
Remind your student that he needs to take action. Help him consider the consequences of not doing anything about whatever issue he is facing. Help him think about options. Nudge him if necessary. Help him be pro-active. Sometimes an issue may seem overwhelming, but remind your student that taking action is empowering.
Although the coach may not actually play the game, he needs to know the rules of the game. As your student’s coach, it is helpful if you are knowledgeable about some of the school’s policies, requirements, deadlines, administrative structure. This doesn’t mean that you need to memorize the college catalog. Sometimes you may just need to point your student to the place to find the information he needs. “There’s an academic calendar on the website, you might want to check it for the deadline for registering for classes, I think it’s coming up soon.” Remember that you are trying to help your student to become more independent. If he doesn’t follow through, he may need to live with the consequences – and so will you. That may be one of his most valuable lessons.
You will have ample opportunity to give guidance to your student about many things. Make sure that he understands that your suggestions are just that, suggestions. He may welcome and accept your advice – or he may choose to ignore it. Give that option. He may be much more willing to listen if you remind him that it is his choice about what to do with the information. You may be surprised how receptive he becomes when he knows that he may choose another option. (And then you must be willing to accept another option!)
Don’t be discouraged.
You’ve given advice. You’ve encouraged and nudged. Don’t be discouraged if you get a negative response – or no response. Keep the lines of communication open. Exercise your sensitivity about when enough may be enough for the moment and it is time to back off. Things may click later, or ideas may be internalized without you – or your student – realizing it. You may be surprised some day when you hear your student saying something to someone else that you said to him. He may or may not even remember where he got the idea, but it’s there.
Independence, and responsibility, and maturity, develop slowly. Your student will change – and grow – gradually, one small step at a time. He will become more and more capable and independent as he builds his skills. Patience is important both for you and your student. You may need to do more coaching during his first year than his last year. By his sophomore or junior years you may already be amazed at this student and wonder when the change happened. If you’ve helped your student work on his skills gradually, he’ll be ready for the big game when it comes!
By reminding yourself and your student that you have an important role as a coach, by understanding what that role is, by encouraging your student to take action and responsibility, by stepping back and giving guidance and then being patient, you can coach your student through a successful college career.