Being a college parent is hard work. Sometimes it is difficult work because of the amount of things that you need to do and because you need to be very involved. But sometimes, being a college parent is hard work because of what you need not to do. Sometimes the hard work is standing back and allowing your student to take control of the experience.
But just because you need to stand back and let your student be in the driver’s seat, doesn’t mean that you, as a college parent, are not involved. Although you may be on the sidelines of this experience, you can still be present, needed, and very much part of the fabric of the experience. The involvement may, however, be more subtle (and therefore, in some ways more difficult) than you anticipated.
We’d like to suggest five important jobs for college parents. You may not do all jobs equally well. You may not need to tackle some jobs as much as others. You may need to experiment and practice some skills before you become proficient at them. But we’d like to suggest that you have five important tasks as a college parent.
Provide support – If you’ve read our posts on College Parent Central (and we hope that you have) you will hear this theme over and over. As parents, we provide the support system, the safety net, and the encouragement for our students to set out on their own. They are able to venture forth because they know that we are there for them. They are willing to experiment and make mistakes because they know that, while we will not be able to fix everything, we will be there and guide them through. Our task is not to “lead the charge,” but to be present and encourage, serve as a sounding board, and continue to be there when things may not go as planned. Although all five of the parental jobs are important, this may be the most crucial.
Encourage risks – Of course, there are some risks that you do not want to encourage for your student. You may need to help your college student determine appropriate risks and inappropriate risks. In many ways, students in this age range do not need encouragement to take risks; it seems to come naturally. However, you may need to help your student recognize some appropriate risks – perhaps reaching out to new friends, perhaps experimenting with a new interest or major, perhaps reaching for a leadership position on campus. Encouraging appropriate risks means that you will be helping your student determine areas in which he can grow and develop.
Look for the positive – Because your student is comfortable with you, and you are a safe listener, you may be the person to whom she will vent when things are not going well. You may be the person who hears about the discouragement or the disappointments. You may need to help your student put her experiences into perspective and to look at the larger picture. You may need to help your student recognize those things that are going well. If your student makes mistakes, or makes poor choices, it may be difficult to find the positive in her experiences, but if you can help her learn how she can build on her experiences, she will be able to use those experiences to her advantage. It may also be an important exercise for you, as parent, to find the positive outcomes of mistakes, disappointments, or poor choices.
Provide constructive feedback – Just as you need to help your student find the positive in his experiences, you may need to provide feedback or give some advice. It is important to remember, however, that your job is to give the feedback or advice and then allow your student to take it or not. Once again, it is up to us, as parents, to allow our students to make the decisions. You may, however, have some insight and understanding of a situation that your student does not. Letting him know how you feel and what you think and suggest is important. If you approach this as a partnership, your student may be more willing and able to listen to what you have to say.
Provide financial guidance – Some students are very fortunate and have unlimited funds and will never need to worry about finances. Other students may be fortunate to have had a class in high school which will teach them about personal finances. For the majority of students, however, personal financial management may be mysterious and overwhelming. As college parents, it may be important that we step in and help our student understand how to think about and deal with her money. We are not considering here the larger financial picture of college loans and tuition, although that is important, but rather the day-to-day financial literacy. You may need to help your student learn to be competent in budgeting, use of credit cards, understanding interest rates, balancing a checkbook, etc. Helping your student understand these skills early on will prevent serious financial difficulties later.
Each college student is different. Each family of a college student is unique. You may feel that there are other areas in which you need to provide guidance for your student. You may feel that you are proficient in some of these tasks and need to brush up in other areas. Looking at your college parent goals in broad strokes may help. We complete many small tasks all of the time, but take some time to think about the important goals that you have for yourself as a college parent. It will help you to provide the important assistance that your college student may need.