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The Changing Role of Parents during the College Years

  • Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D. Beverly LaHaye Institute
  • Updated Aug 11, 2011
The Changing Role of Parents during the College Years

The New York Times recently advised parents of incoming college freshmen to drop their kids off, "back off," "walk away," and "move on" so that their "students can develop independence." In the article, parents who don't hop in the car, return home and consider their parenting over are dismissed as "super-involved" or "over-involved" and are described as "Velcro parents," "Helicopter parents," or "baby-on-board parents."

Some colleges join in the derogatory attitude toward parents, going so far as to advise limiting phone calls and text messages. Some provide not-so-subtle indications that parents are not to "meddle." According to the New York Times, the University of Minnesota holds a separate reception for parents so that their sons and daughters can meet their roommates and negotiate dorm room space without the parents around. Grinnell College has the new students sit on one side of the gymnasium and the parents on the other with all speakers talking to the student side — a symbolic way of putting parents in their place.

These attacks against parenting are another attempt to intimidate parents into surrendering their influence to that of supposedly "superior" intellectuals and professional "educators" who know what's best for our children. My husband and I spent years on college campuses as professors and as administrators. We saw campus life from the inside. Then, as parents of college students, we saw it from the outside as well.

Certainly, there are over-involved parents living vicariously through their kids' experiences, but many more parents just "wash their hands" of involvement with their children when they go off to college. My judgment: far too many parents assume that their parenting role ends when college for their child begins. I do not agree that parents are superfluous. Nor do I think kids should be abandoned to flounder in a totally new environment where they are deluged with new worldviews and ideologies. Some students are suddenly cut loose from their anchors in an environment of total freedom without adequate preparation; they move out of a home where there are clear rules and expectations (which stabilize both their conduct and emotions) into a place where there are few rules or expectations for their behavior or conduct.

As I read the New York Times article, I remembered one of my favorite roles as an academic dean. I was given the privilege of giving the keynote address at the evening convocation for students and parents before freshman activities started the next day. Having recently seen our own two children off to college, I could feel the parental uncertainty. My husband and I had given a lot of thought to our new roles as parents of adult children and how to maintain the positive connection and bond of friendship we had developed during the years before our two left for college. We were not going to let our neglect tarnish or erode those bonds with our kids.

Most of the parents I addressed at those orientation sessions proved eager listeners to the following: First, your role as a parent lasts a lifetime. While your role changes dramatically at various stages in your children's lives, it is important and significant at each stage. You have to learn to be adaptable to those changes, but it is vital that you provide the support that your children need in their college days and provide the guidance that they will ask for when you make it clear that you are still there for them and that you won't tell them what to do or interfere with their growth into maturity and adulthood. Most of us do not want our children's first real trip on the high wire of independence to be without a safety net. As the song says, we want to be the "wind beneath their wings."

As I talked to the parents of incoming freshmen, I wanted them to be particularly alert to three things:

1. Your child is beginning one of the most significant and challenging stages of his or her life. Perhaps for the first time, that child is on his or her own and it is a proverbial "make-or-break" situation. (Hopefully, you have spent the previous 18 years preparing them for this day — emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually.) They need to know that you will continue to be there as a parent to provide support and/or guidance as they request it.

2. Over the four years of college or university life, students will make many of the most important decisions of their lives. Wise parents will anticipate the challenges and temptations and prepare their children with the character and arguments that they need to avoid risky and destructive behavior; loving communication and wise counsel can help your child resist temptation and make good decisions.

3. Over the next four years, your child will sit under the influence of a few professors who enjoy tearing down the moral and religious views of their students. For such profs, teaching is a game, and the intellectual seduction of their students is the conquest that makes their teaching challenging. Their agenda is to separate students from their parents, thereby, they hope, removing the influence of traditional, Judeo-Christian values. Wise parents will listen carefully and be ready to help counter such pernicious nonsense.

There is no reason for parents to accede to the condescending and patronizing attitudes of those who believe that parents are superfluous in their children's lives once they reach college age. Of course a parent's role must change, but the parental role is still important, and I can attest to the fact that it can be as meaningful, memorable, and significant in the college days and into adulthood as it was during all the previous stages of your child's life. Nothing is more gratifying to a parent than to see a child become a mature adult — well-adjusted, well-educated, and well-prepared to make their own decisions.

Originally posted September 10, 2010.

Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse is a Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America's Beverly LaHaye Institute. She writes about contemporary issues that affect women, family, religion and culture in her regular column "Dot.Commentary."