Regular phone conversations with your college student are a great way to stay in touch with what is happening in your student’s life – and for them to stay in touch with life at home. Even if you keep up with each other via e-mail, text, or some other electronic medium, there is nothing quite like hearing each other’s voice. However, just because the technology allows us instant contact, it doesn’t mean that every conversation will be satisfying. Here are some suggestions that will help to maximize your conversations with your college student.
Make it routine.
Although spontaneous conversations are good, consider setting up a regular time for your student to phone you. Let your student phone you, rather than you making the call, so that they will choose a time when they are available for a conversation. Reaching them while they are at dinner with friends may not be very satisfying for anyone.
One perennial dilemma is finding the balance of how much contact is the right amount. While it may seem reassuring, as a parent, to talk to your child daily, or even multiple times a day, after those first few days of transition are over, moving away from such frequent conversations will help your student settle into life at college. Perhaps talking weekly might allow you to touch bases and check in.
Some students resist phoning home once a week. If that is the case, suggest that they do it for your benefit. Some students naturally phone home when they have a problem, or are feeling sad or homesick, or have something wonderful to celebrate. For others, this may not be as easy. When you set up a regular schedule, your student has an opportunity to phone home “because my parents insist” and it becomes a regular time to talk. They don’t have to admit that they want to hear your voice, or see phoning home as a sign of dependence.
Chatterbox or stony silence.
You may find that some weeks your student will have lots to tell you and you will have a long and meaningful conversation. Other weeks, the conversation may be brief. Some of this, of course, will depend on your child’s personality and your relationship, as well as what has happened during the week. Cherish those long conversations, and recognize that sometimes there just may not be much to talk about – or your student may be too busy to take time to talk. Being busy is good.
Some suggestions to keep things going smoothly.
Here are a few suggestions for you to keep in mind as you engage in phone conversations with your student:
- Sometimes your job may be just to listen. Try to decide whether your student is asking for advice or just wants a sympathetic ear.
- Sometimes your child just needs to vent. Things may not seem as bad tomorrow as they paint it today. You may be getting the brunt of a bad mood, or anger, or a complaint about something at school. Listen carefully, but keep things in perspective.
- Listen between the lines. If your student sounds upset, try to determine whether this is a momentary mood, whether they are overwhelmed, sad about something specific, homesick, or just plain tired.
- If your student in excited about activities, celebrate with them. Ask for details. This will help you visualize their life away from home.
- If the conversation is brief, accept that sometimes that’s all that’s possible – or necessary. If it seems brief because your student is upset, or not sharing something, prompt a bit to try to draw them out or ask if it would be better to talk another time.
- If you ever have serious cause for concern about your child, let someone at school know. You might contact a Dean of Students, Class Dean, Residence Life office, or Counseling. The school will make sure the right person gets the information.
- Think about your end of the conversation. Share news from home. Be honest about any concerns or issues. In the same way that you want your student to be honest about things happening at college, be honest about anything going on at home. But be careful about sharing problems or issues at home that your student can do nothing about.
- If you get “Can’t talk now, I’m off to do something with my friends,” celebrate the occasion. It means that your child is active and involved in life at school. You’ll be there to listen next week.
Making your conversations comfortable and meaningful
You’ve made phone conversations with your student routine. You’re prepared to listen to their college adventures and share something about life at home. But sometimes the conversation just doesn’t flow. Sometimes it’s all about the questions you ask – and the responses you make.
Here are five suggestions for those more awkward conversations,
Be informed. Have some information which will allow you to ask appropriate questions. What might be going on at this point in the semester academically? Is it midterm time? Ask about exams. Is it time to select courses for next semester? Ask what they are thinking of signing up for. Check the college calendar on the website. Is there a big event happening? An important speaker coming to campus? A big game or tournament? Your student may not think to talk about these things because to them they seem ordinary and un-newsworthy.
Ask open questions. Open questions are questions that allow your student to expand on answers. Closed questions allow them to respond with a simple yes or no. Sometimes, it’s just that we are asking the questions the wrong way. “How are your classes?” may garner a response of “Fine”. Not particularly informative or satisfying. But questions such as “What’s interesting in your favorite class?” or “What are you covering now in your most difficult class?” or “What kinds of activities did they have at the fall festival?” might get the conversation flowing.
Use follow-up questions. As you listen to your student, think about some ways to encourage them to expand even more on what has been offered. If their response to “What is your most difficult class?” is “English Lit.” you might follow with “Why is that one so difficult?” or “Is it getting any easier now that you’ve been in it a few weeks?” or “Are there any ways that you can get any help with the subject?” Asking follow-up questions not only opens the door to more conversation, it lets your college student know that you are truly listening to her response.
Be aware of stoppers and encouragers. In her book The Zen of Listening, Rebecca Z. Shafir, suggests that some listening responses are stoppers while others are encouragers. Two of the stoppers which Shafir suggests are potential traps when we are listening to our students – denial and advice giving. How often do we discount our student’s perception of a situation by saying something like, “It can’t be that bad,” or “You’re making this seem worse than it probably is”? Yes, we’re trying to help, but we’re actually dismissing their feelings. A good rule of thumb for college parent advice giving might be to give advice only when asked – and keep it short. Your student may not want advice, they may only want to be heard.
Shafir also suggests some encouragers for good listening. Among these, two particularly useful ones are silence and reassurance. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is to bite your tongue and just listen. Just be there. Don’t give feedback and don’t give advice. Just listen. And sometimes the most appreciated response may be simple and sincere reassurance – that you understand, that things will get better, that you’ll be there.
Remember the fine line. It’s important to remember that there may be a fine line between interest and interrogation. Let your student take the lead. Remember two important things – not every conversation is going to be a fulfilling one – and there will be another opportunity soon.