Introduction and how to use this book
First, I apologize to my residence life colleagues for using the word dorm. It made sense for this book, but I know it grates on you. Most people don’t know that we say residence hall instead, and that a residence hall is a place that promotes community, not just a bunch of rooms.
This book started out in my mind as a “how to.” The original “how to” focus was going to show parents how to avoid being the dreaded “helicopter parents.” I could spend paragraphs explaining that term, but, in this case, it would be better to Google it! You’ll find some definitions, articles, and cartoons. Some are funny and some are sad.
As I wrote it, this book morphed. It became a memoir of my time working at colleges and universities, and my time as a parent. But a memoir isn’t usually written to help people. It’s written to remember, entertain, or explore universal truth. While I enjoyed remembering and hope to entertain a bit, what I most want is to ease your way.
With this book, I want parents to learn from what I saw, what I did, and what I wish I’d done.
Many parents aren’t prepared for having college-age students—whether those students attend college or not. I’ve also seen many students arrive at college unprepared—and frequently unwilling to be there—but that issue isn’t within the scope of this book.
In my more frustrated moments, I see that a huge issue of the U.S. public school system is confused parenting and rapidly changing societal expectations. There’s no way I can cover all that—much less say how to fix it. That won’t stop me from doing what I can in an area where I feel I have some experience and expertise.
My focus in this book is the parents or supporters of students who are nearing graduation from high school. It’s also for parents of students who are years away but hoping to attend college. And it’s for those who are already in college and it’s not going well. Those of you with much younger students might be able to look ahead and get some tips to prevent some of what gets students off track. I know, when they’re just learning to read, it’s tough to imagine them buying $200 textbooks!
In this book, I offer you an insider’s look at higher education, a parent’s dramatically different experience with two different children, and an academic coach’s advice for how to be a successful (and sane) parent of a college student. Or not.
The “or not” doesn’t apply to the sane part. It applies to the college part. Over the last few years of my career, I’ve discovered that many students do not need to attend college. And there’s a variety of reasons for that.
Some aren’t ready. Some aren’t interested. Some aren’t qualified. Some can be quite successful in a productive and healthy career of their choice without attending college. The most important thing for you to realize, as a parent or supporter, is that it’s the student’s choice. Period.
Because it’s free, or because you went to college, or because it’s the only way they can be a doctor and that’s what you’ve always wanted for them—none of these are great reasons to attend, unless they’re coupled with the student’s willingness and ability to do what it takes to be successful. Not your willingness or ability. Theirs. If you want it for them more than they want it for themselves, that’s the heart of the problem.
This book can show you how things work leading up to college, and how things work once your student is admitted. It will dispel some myths and let you in on some of the “secrets” known by professionals in the field.
If you have a student who is ready and willing, this book will show you how to be the kind of supporter who encourages without interfering. The kind of supporter who helps the college staff teach the student to fish, instead of catching, cleaning, cooking, and chewing the fish for them.
If you have a student who isn’t ready and/or willing, this book can show you how to help them figure out the best path that isn’t college. At least not yet (if ever). And that’s okay! We’ll talk about how to shift your expectations of what success looks like for your kids and better understand a positive role for yourself.
You’ll read about my credentials and my experiences, but, for now, it might help to know that I have 30 years of experience working on a college campus. For 11 of those years, I lived in the dorm, surrounded by college students, day and night, as a full-time professional.
To some of you, it might matter that I have a master’s degree in adult learning. (I define adults as those beyond high school, regardless of whether their behavior earns them that label.) I spent several years working on that degree while living with hundreds of college students, so I took away some lessons that can help you.
Finally, a factor that might matter more to some of you than to others, I’m a parent (and a stepparent). Of the four children who had me as a parent or stepparent, two have master’s degrees, one has a bachelor’s degree, and the fourth has a couple of free t-shirts from orientation.
I continue to learn from and with them, as well as from and with the students who used to “report” to me on campus. Many of them have become close friends, calling my husband and me their “college dad and mom,” and backing that up with regular visits, wedding invitations, and calls about expecting children.
By reading this book, you can give yourself a chance to handle this tough age better than expected. Or maybe it’s your second try, and you want to get it right this time. Or maybe you plan way ahead, and just know that when the time comes, you’ll want to have taken some steps early on. Regardless of what stage your children are at, you can learn tips and strategies for being a successful supporter of a college-age student.
When I started writing this book, I contacted friends and colleagues who might have something to add. One of them, Kathy Harris, has a 13-year-old who is a remarkable young man. Both she and her husband are educated professionals. She asked how she could help (she’s a writer) and I suggested she just “brain dump” a few questions she already has. What she sent me was somewhat of a surprise, as I happen to know this kid is doing great things already, making his parents proud on a regular basis. Here’s what she sent me.
One of the things I worry about balancing as Mac gets well into high school is how much to push him and stay on top of his grades, etc. We do it now in hopes he’ll figure out how to do this on his own for high school and college. But what if he doesn’t? High school grades mean so much now for getting into college. And of course, his mental health always must come first—he’s already stressed in middle school. I’m rambling...not expecting an answer but it’s on my mind a lot—he’s in 8th grade!
Kathy is an involved (but not hovering) parent, with solid education and the ability to communicate beyond what’s normal. If these are her questions, I can only imagine what parents who have less experience and fewer resources are thinking. The good news is there are plenty of people on each campus who are qualified, ready, and eager to help!
Knowing how rapidly things change in our society—yet much stays the same—I want this book to give you tools that will change with the times. The idea is for you to be able to modify the tools to fit your situation for as many college-age kids as you plan to support!
It’s critical to remember they’re individuals. Even twins are separate individuals, as alert parents of multiples have reassured me. Learn how to figure out what your student needs, and what you need, to navigate this time well.
Readers usually want proof that what they’re reading is true and/or useful. I can’t argue with that! Sometimes, the best proof is in seeing what not to do. I have examples of that.
For those who want reassurance that their son or daughter will make it through college without a glitch or a mistake, you’re on the wrong planet. Mistakes are the trademark of college students. For years, my job seemed to be making sure they learned—without severe injury or worse—from their mistakes on campus. It was a constant challenge.
I’ve learned through the years that we can never be sure that what our children do—good or bad—was because of what we did as parents or in spite of it. We do the best we can, we keep learning, we admit our mistakes, and we try again. We don’t take all the credit for their success or all the blame for their failure.
I take promises seriously. In fact, it’s one of the few things that will get me to the gym early in the morning! If I tell someone I’ll be there—they can count on that. So please trust me when I offer these promises.
I promise you’ll know more about how college really works than you did before (unless you work in higher education). I promise you’ll know where to get more information and what help is available as you move through this. I promise you’ll have tools to make better decisions about supporting your college-age students. You’ll also get tools to keep yourself from becoming the dreaded “helicopter parent.” I promise you’ll have new ways to look at choices available to your student. I promise to offer a new perspective on being a successful parent of a college-age student.
Maybe you think you don’t need this book yet because your child is only 13. Maybe you think it’s too late because your child already flunked a semester of college and lost scholarships. I dispute both ideas in this book.
If you wait too long, you’ll get caught up in the confusion of planning for college. Too much information will be thrown at you and your student to even keep track of. The saying “trying to get just a sip of water from a fire hose” comes to mind.
It’s much better to prevent and prepare than it is to fight, freeze, or flee! (I just love a good chance to use alliteration.)
Start reading now and talk with your student—if and only if they’re open to it. If not, pushing the issue will only make things worse. If they’re not ready and willing to talk about it, talk with other parents in the same situation. They’re everywhere.
Start a “book club” and find a way to have a positive support group (and wine, if that’s your thing). It could take you through many challenges! This book can be a good guide and release a river of ideas.
Get out a pen and write in this book. Underline, circle, or put an arrow next to passages that really speak to you. Some people work better writing in a journal or typing their thoughts, especially if they’re reading an electronic version.
This is a book I’d like you to not just read, but also interact with. Some things might not ring true to you, and that’s valid. Just know I’m not making any of this up (reality is stranger than fiction), and I’m here to help.
There are almost always counselors in high schools who are paid to help your student prepare for college. They go by different names, and some schools have more and better resources than others. Some schools do a fantastic job with this. Others are overwhelmed by a huge number of students, or by student attitude or tough economic circumstances. However, there just aren’t as many resources out there for parents!
If you hear about “helicopter parents” or—the new version—lawn mower parents, and don’t want to be one of those, this book is for you.
What’s the difference?
Helicopter parents are said to be overparenting, hindering their sons’ and daughters’ social development. They seem overprotective or overly invested in a child’s life and feelings. They hover, monitoring and attempting to control a child’s every move.
On the other hand, a lawnmower parent is one who clears a path for a child, a parent who intervenes in a situation before his or her child can experience any inconvenience or discomfort. They often continue the behavior once the child starts college, and often beyond.
There’s plenty of good reading out there on this topic, if you want to see whether your own behavior might earn you this label. And while I’m not a huge fan of labels, our society is quick to use them.
Even if you feel you’ve made mistakes up to this point, it’s not too late to learn and change. After all, that’s what we’re all hoping our children will do. Let’s show them how.
I look forward to hearing what you get out of this book, and what you still need to know or understand better. There are answers out there, and people—including me—who want you to find them! Read on and connect when you’re ready.
How to use this book
There’s no way for me to write this book and offer useful advice without using stories. Not all of these are my own stories, and where a real name is used with a story, I have permission.
There are so many people who’ve been part of this journey with me and have taught me ways to look at situations and people. Many of them had dramatically different experiences and a variety of strategies for handling them.
I wasn’t the typical age for a Hall Director and didn’t have the usual background. If you’re wondering what the typical age and background would be, I’d say that most of the ones I worked with were in their mid- to late-20s (or maybe early 30s) with a master’s degree in something related to students in higher education. I also worked with many who were working on a master’s degree, and they would usually supervise a smaller dorm and have fewer official “office hours.”
What is the job description of a Hall Director? Here’s what I have on my work summary that I prepared for job applications. This describes the position I started in the summer of 2000.
As full-time, live-in professional staff, responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the various programs and services in a 470-student, mostly freshman Residence Hall community with the goal of developing a positive community environment that supports the academic goals of the students and the mission of the University. The position requires seasoned judgment to provide direction and support in the form of advisement of the Resident Assistant (RA) staff and their programs, execution of crisis management and policy enforcement, and building maintenance. Use student development theory and strategies to provide an environment in the residence halls that enhances academic, personal, and social development in the residents. Teach classes to train and select RA staff.
In fact, I think one reason I got that first position was because they let my parenting and overall life experience substitute for what some of the younger Hall Directors learned in grad school.
Eventually, I would need that master’s, but I was able to step in thanks to their generosity and desperation. To this day, I’m thankful that the University of Wyoming also didn’t require a master’s degree and helped pay for the one I got while working there.
In the following stories, sometimes characters are combinations of several people, the way movies often do. I hope they serve the purpose of providing a real-life example you can use.
A friend and former boss of mine, Sue Foster, sent me a copy of a speech she once gave. It was at the beginning of training for the live-in staff at her university, and it was full of amazing stories. She told them so the students would get a glimpse of what was ahead, and know it was something they could learn from and even enjoy. A couple of the stories I was there to experience with her, and I still shake my head in disbelief.
One of her wisest comments (and there were many) was this: “Never underestimate the power you hold to educate and influence others.” It’s a tough, intimidating call to action for a group of undergraduate students! And it’s dead-on accurate. For the students and for the professionals.
Not all of it’s serious, though. For example, Sue told of a time one of her Hall Directors received an urgent call from a mother at 7:30 on a Saturday morning. Mom was upset because her son’s roommate didn’t fold his clothes before placing them in his dresser drawers. That’s one we just have to laugh about.
Quite a bit of what I’ve learned has happened since leaving the live-in role.
After 11 years of living on campus as part of my job, my husband and I returned to Texas to be with family and get a house off campus again. Our timing was perfect, as Texas A&M was starting up a new major project—the Academic Success Center. I was one of the first two Academic Coaches hired for this adventure and spent some time filling in the gaps I had around study skills and academic requirements.
One of the first things I learned was that even at a competitive-admission school such as Texas A&M, many students showed up without enough study skills. They needed immediate help with time management. Many weren’t sure of their major, and some didn’t even really know why they were in college, except that it was expected of them.
Because most of those who had appointments with us were there because of grade problems, most of them also needed to learn how (and when and where) to study. Most of all, they needed to learn that college isn’t 13th grade.
This book also mentions further reading I recommend. Even though there are some wonderful books with helpful information, I remind you to make sure the right person is reading the right book!
For example, a book on study skills isn’t going to do a parent much good—unless that parent is also a student. Your son does not want to learn about studying from you, unless he specifically asks for your help.
Handing your 17-year-old son the book, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week, and hoping he’ll get organized is a huge mistake. Read the book for what it can teach you as a parent.
Remember, it’s hard enough to change ourselves, even when we want to. It’s so much harder—and almost always impossible—to change others. Even when they want to change.
If your son comes to you and says, “I really need help with school—I’m already falling behind,” then you can step in. But only a little at a time.
It’s way too easy to jump in and try to become an academic coach. You may want to save him from himself and feel like a heroic parent at the same time, but that’s a slippery slope. I know, because I slid down it like Clark Griswold on a snowy hill. (If you don’t know that reference, I recommend that you watch Christmas Vacation before you finish this book.)
Keep in mind that I was an Academic Coach—a paid professional at a top four-year university—when my son left home for his first semester of college. I had so much to offer him! Study tips. Test strategies. Note-taking tricks. I even custom-made a planner for him (and his girlfriend) and had them printed. Complete with important dates for each semester already on the calendar for his college.
Those are hours and dollars I’ll never get back and that he never used. Just know that you must be clear about your role, and his or her role. This must be about the student—not about you.
Even if you’re paying for it, it’s still about them.
I hope you finish this book and keep it on hand to look at again. I hope you loan it to a struggling relative or friend, or one who’s looking at an 11th-grade daughter and wondering what’s next. I hope you consider reading it with a group of friends who are in the same spot. I also hope you let me know what worked for you, and where you need more help. I hope you send me points and tips I didn’t include. Any way we can find to help college-age students and everyone around them is a great idea in my book.