Brian Underwood: Advice for the college-bound parent

Sequels pose an interesting risk, but somehow they keep coming, and more often than not they hit rock bottom.

Span pop culture and you’re likely to see a spinoff from your favorite movie, television show, book, etc. Or in the case of the Rocky franchise, eight iterations of Rocky and his pugilistic spawn in the ring with some villain.

And so it is, too, with the education and family column you’re reading that will soon line your bird cage.

Last month I proffered advice for the college-bound student based on the fact that my wife and I were about to embark upon a cross country odyssey to take our daughter to college at Lipscomb University in Nashville. Thankfully, everything went very well, save the 110 heat index on move-in day. What was particularly delightful, though, was a fabulous speaker the parents heard to kickoff orientation.

Amusing is the rich irony found in setting your child up for an education but instead getting schooled in the process. And there to deliver the paradox strode Dr. Jim Thomas.

With the confidence of one entering his 45th year of distinguished service in higher education, matched by the authentic charisma of one clearly called to teach, Thomas was the first on a slate of speakers over a two-day period who was called to calm the nerves of the parents in the audience as their students were beginning to learn the ropes elsewhere.

And who better to lead the parade than one whose doctoral work was on the topic of student transitions to college followed by continued study on the issue has made him an expert on the subject.

Thomas’ presentation on the “Nine Guidelines For a Smoother Transition to College Life (but no guarantees!),” adapted from the Guidelines of the National Orientation Directors, was all at once edifying, scary, hilarious, and emotional. But most of all it was one of the best parenting presentations I’ve heard related to the topic and extremely worthy of sharing.

Beginning with Number 1, Don’t Ask Them, Thomas advised parents to avoid asking their kids if they are homesick. More often than not they aren’t, at least not until the question is posed. Parents likely suffer from the separation more than their kids. Translation:

Avoid the temptation to ask.

Number 2: Facebook, email, text, or tweet on a regular basis (but they will probably not contact you as much). Parents are, however, still encouraged to routinely communicate, just with boundaries on topics like homesickness. Thomas stated that students do like to hear from home, but their new surroundings and opportunities keep them engaged. And that’s part of the goal, right? Translation: Consider their heart language of technology when communicating, and, generally speaking, be cautioned about the amount of contact to expect.

Number 3: Ask Questions (but not too many). Selecting a post secondary school path is one of the first major decisions a young person makes. Sure, parents are inextricably linked to the decision for all the natural and appropriate reasons, but giving students some margin during and after the decision is made and playing out can play a large role in how trust is engendered or endangered into the future.

Translation: Measure the urge to repeatedly ask about potentially inflammatory topics (e.g. such as grades), and remember there are lots of life lessons being taught and learned. Being supportive counts for a lot.

Number 4: Expect Change (but not too much). Translation: Sometimes progress is measured in inches and not miles. Be patient and stay the course.

Number 5: Expect upsetting telephone calls, emails, texts or tweets (but don’t worry too much about those types of contacts. Early in his presentation Thomas reminded the parents assembled what they already knew but needed to hear. Teenagers and those early in their college years are “high speed emotional roller coasters.” They are mercurial; one minute they’re up, the next they’re down. Translation: Listen as they emote in their own way, tell them you love them, and share your best pearl of wisdom. If you think of it, ask them the last time they ate and how much sleep they’ve been getting. A walk around the block never hurt either.

Number 6: Visit (but not too often). If circumstances allow, Thomas said students enjoy it when their parents visit, but not on a regular basis, and never unannounced. Many schools sponsor such things as parent or family weekends. These are welcomed opportunities for students and parents to connect. Translation: Would you want your parents dropping in all the time or, worse, unannounced?

Number 7: Do not say to your freshman, “These are the best years of your life.” Is this true? Generally speaking, yes, they are. However, pontificating in this way at the outset of a student’s college career, particularly if things are not going well, can lead a student to feel downright defeated and depressed. (Inner monologue: “If this is supposed to be so great, I’m not sure I want to see what’s down the line.”) Translation: Consider using a different, less condescending tack when trying to lend perspective.

Compassion goes a long ways.

Number 8: Believe in them... and keep believing in them. We all stumble in a variety of ways, and we need encouragers when we do. Now think for a moment about stumbling when you were 18-22 years old, possibly away from home, and afraid of the resulting disappointment you thought you’d caused. What did you need? There’s always room for the truth, but consider the right time, the right place, and the right spirit to share it. And sometimes it’s for another day: Translation: Everyone needs an advocate. Be that for your child.

Finally, Number 9: Pray daily for your son or daughter. Nothing is more powerful than this. Translation: None needed.


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