07/31/2012 05:28 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Help Me Help You: An Open Letter to Parents/Family Members

Dear Parents/Families,

I promise, we college officials are not trying to confuse you or throw you off your game. And yet I completely understand your feeling that way, particularly as you keep telling me that you feel that way! You attend the orientation meetings and read the Parent/Family Handbook and, after we pummel you with words "privacy" and "FERPA", it's no wonder that you walk away feeling like we don't want any contact with you.

Not true! The most supportive scenario possible is the one in which students, their families and college personnel work together in partnership. But in order to make that vision come to pass, you and I need to work on our phone conversations. If I may, here are some suggestions on the opening lines with which you habitually call me and how we can tweak them.

"I swear I'm not one of those parents, but..." There is absolutely no need for you to be self-effacing or defensive about calling me or any other school official. The media has done an extraordinary job of coding parents as helicopters or tanks or gondolas or some other transportation metaphor that only works in a broad swath and doesn't apply to you personally. My assumption is that you're calling for a reason and not because you want to fit into some artificial category, so feel free to drop the disclaimer.

"I haven't heard from Chris in...hours!" Perhaps the most frequent calls I receive from parents and family members are because you haven't heard from your student in a bit (anywhere from months to hours). Please, please develop a communication plan with your student before they leave for school. This should address frequency, method (calls, e-mails, smoke signals) and recipients (siblings, grandparents, pets). You state your expectations. They will counter-offer. Somewhere in the middle, an agreement will be reached. It is a much different call if you are telling me that they haven't contacted you at an agreed-upon time as opposed to your heart's desire for more contact.

"Jessie sounded so upset about everything!" Your student will often initiate contact with you to vent about a difficulty they are trying to overcome. The trap is if this becomes the basis for your communication with them. Before they even get to their venting, stop them and ask what is going well for them. Make them detail for you a story (or five) of positive, transformative experiences they're having both inside and outside the classroom. In addition to the warm fuzzies the stories will hopefully provide, starting conversations off in the positive might temper the venting and put the difficulty in a new light. If your student is unable to recount any positive experiences they are having, then that will significantly change the focus of your call to me.

"Should I be concerned about Terry?" Let me simplify this script:
Parent: Should I be concerned?
Ken: Are you concerned?
Parent: Yes.
Ken: Then, yes. Let's talk about next steps.

Just as I urge students to speak with their families about roadblocks, so too is it crucial that you express your concerns directly to your student. Although your relationship may undergo some transitions, you do not have to completely let go. Ask questions. Express support. Heck, even express an opinion or two if you want. The key, as always, is to communicate. The more intentionally we all speak to each other (you to me, me to the student, and, most importantly, you to your student), the more we can create the most fulfilling college experience possible. For us all.

See you on Family Day!

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.