All over the country, recent high school grads are planning their great exodus from home, thinking that relative freedom from parental intervention is about to begin. In the age of the electronic tether, they might be in for a big surprise.
Using cell phones, texting, Skype, email, and every new technological advice available, parents and their college students are staying connected at unprecedented levels. No more the payphone in the hall, the weekly check-in, or the monthly call for money. Some parents now expect to know the details of college life as it unfolds, and to offer advice on all aspects of it -- and to intervene with college officials when their child is upset over a roommate squabble, a grade, or coach's benching. What our research shows, as reported in The iConnected Parent: Staying to Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting them Grow Up (Hofer & Moore, Free Press, 2010) is that this involvement comes with a price.
When we surveyed students the month before they left from college, they told us they planned to talk once a week. When we surveyed them during the college years, we found they were communicating 13.4 times a week on average, a rather startling difference, and this varied little by year in college or by type of school, whether a small liberal arts college or a large research university. Most importantly, we found that the more they talk to their parents, the less independent and autonomous students they are.
Not long ago when kids left for college they learned to call the shots in their own lives, but not so anymore. In our research studies and interviews, students told us of parents who collect their syllabi and call to remind them when papers are due, call to wake them up on exam days, and remind them to eat and sleep and do their laundry, just like they did at home. Most disturbingly, one in five students reported that their parents proof and edit their college papers -- all too easy with "tracking changes". Technology has created a seamless connection between home and college, for better and for worse. Although many students often report a strong closeness to their parents, often they are not learning the very skills that parents are paying dearly for them to develop. In well-meaning attempts to help, parents may be undermining psychological and academic growth.
Families who want to support progress toward adulthood during the college years might want to think about how often they plan to communicate when kids leave home -- and how. Staying connected in a healthy way is critical to psychological development during the period of emerging adulthood, as is learning to navigate more autonomously. This delicate balance may be harder to find in a digital age, and needs mindful attention.
A few tips:
1) Talk with your son or daughter about how often you will communicate before they leave home this fall.
2) Allow them space to initiate contact with you. (The least happy students in our studies were those whose parents controlled the frequent calling.)
3) Listen and reflect back, rather than rushing to solve.
4) Encourage problem solving skills.
5) Teach help-seeking skills and encourage the use of college resources. ("What does your advisor think?" "Have you talked to the professor about how you did on the exam?" "Maybe the dorm's resident adviser would have some ideas about how to deal with your roommate?"
6) Use non-controlling language -- avoid "should", "must", "have to".
7) Defer judgment.
8) Celebrate developing independence.
The good news is that there are many parents who have figured out how to step back a bit during these years, foster healthy autonomy, and communicate regularly but not obsessively. These are the ones with kids who are taking care of their own responsibilities, monitoring their own academic work, and who are happiest with the college experience -- and with their relationships with their parents.