For many of us, the expression that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is very true. An image often sticks with us and helps us to understand an idea more clearly. Poets understand this as they use metaphors to give impact and emotion to their work.
We’d like to suggest four metaphors, or images, that we think represent some of the important principles of college parenting. See if they have meaning or strike a chord for you as you think about your relationship with your college student and your role as a parent in the college experience.
The college tripod
The principle behind a tripod, or a three legged stool, is that it requires three legs to hold it up. It also requires that the three legs be relatively even. One leg too short or too long with cause it to topple over. Think about your college student’s experience and success, and think about three important factors or participants in that experience. One leg of the tripod is your student, one leg is the college, and the third leg is you, as parent, or family support system. The successful college student will have all three, and each “leg” or participant has different responsibilities. The college will provide the opportunities and campus support systems, your student will need to do his part academically and socially, as well as identify and advocate for what he needs, and you will guide your student and provide encouragement and perspective.
There are two important messages here for us, as college parents. First of all, we need to allow our student to do his part and we need to allow the college to do what it needs to do. There are responsibilities for both that do not involve us. Secondly, however, we need to remember that we are an important third leg of this tripod. We do have a place in the college experience – although the role may look very different from the role that we are used to. Identifying and embracing our “leg” of the tripod can be both challenging and reassuring.
The driving lesson
By the time that we are college parents, most of us have had the experience of that first driving lesson with our son or daughter. For many of us, it was a terrifying experience! Think back, if you dare, to that moment when you walked around to the passenger seat and your student got behind the wheel. Remember the helpless feeling as your foot sought the phantom break? Remember the feeling of loss of control over the direction of the car? However, you managed because you knew that the only way that your student could learn how to drive the car was to drive the car. You knew that there would be some scary moments, and that you would be “backseat driving” and worrying for a long time, but you knew it had to happen in order for your student to learn to drive.
Now think about your experience and feelings as a college parent. It may not feel very different. Your student is now (or should be) in control of his experiences, and you are no longer in the driver’s seat. It may feel a bit scary to be along for the ride and in the passenger seat, but it’s a necessary stage to help your student take control of his life.
It is often said that some children mirror or reflect their parents. We see traits and attitudes in our children that reflect their experiences with us and both the conscious and unconscious lessons we’ve taught. However, as parents, we can also serve as a mirror for our children. As a college parent, it may be important that you serve as a reflector for your student, helping her to more objectively see her own behavior and experiences.
Sometimes the simple role of helping your student see what she is doing, or see how something is affecting her, may be just what she needs. And just as some people avoid mirrors at times, your student may or may not want to see her reflection at any given moment. However, she may appreciate it at a different time. There are times for teaching important lessons, times for sharing wisdom, and perhaps times to serve as a simple mirror – reflecting reality to your student.
With the London Olympics just behind us, many of us have spent significant hours watching the world’s best athletes strive to “win the gold,” or at least just do their best. Many of these athletes, as they talk about their experiences, attribute much of their success to their coach. They know that the coach is the person who most believed in them, pushed them, comforted them, and supported and encouraged them. They say they “couldn’t have done it without my coach.” And as we watched those coaches, always on the sidelines, we watched them sometimes yelling in anger, sometimes afraid to look, sometimes shouting encouragement, sometimes giving advice – but always proud of their athlete. Yet, no matter how good the coach, no matter how close the relationship between coach and athlete, the coach could never step in to make a play, or swim a lap, or balance on the beam. Each coach knew that he or she had done his job and it was now time for the athlete to take over.
As college parents, our jobs are often much like that of a good athletic coach. We have worked for years to prepare our student for the college experience. Consciously, or unconsciously, we have taught the lessons, set the boundaries, shared the wisdom, and provided the encouragement and support. Now we stand on the sidelines and let our student participate in the experience of their lifetime.
Whatever the image, analogy or metaphor that works best, college parents need to come to understand that our role continues to be important, but is now significantly different. Finding that new path will help us with our tasks, but will also help our student succeed. Do you have an additional image that works for you? Please share it in the comments.