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Tips for Parents to Maximize a Kid’s College Experience

Harvard Campus in Fall
Copyright 2013 Jannis Werner

The four years (let’s hope no longer) that our adult children are college students are designed to be a time of education and exploration. Often we boomer parents also immerse ourselves in the college experience, perhaps because we are paying part of that annual tab, which can top $60,000 at private universities.

Not only do we want to make sure our children are attending classes and getting good grades, we miss them and want them to feel loved. If the campus if not too distant, we want to visit and watch them play a sport, act in a play, showcase a class project, or simply wander around town with them.

What’s the line between considerate and controlling? We solicited advice on how parents can make the most of college years from colleagues who are both professors and parents of past and present students. They offered some dos and don’ts:

Sissel McCarthy:

  • Resist the temptation to edit your student’s work — it will eventually backfire. “I failed one student on her first assignment because she didn’t have any of the basics. I asked her to come to office hours because it was clear she didn’t understand what we had just covered. In fact, she said she understood it all but that her mother had changed her lead and quotes to make the story more dramatic.”
  • Don’t fight your children’s battles, such as roommate issues, exam schedules and especially grades. “College-age students need to learn how to present their best case, deal with conflict and then accept and take responsibility for things that don’t go their way.” It’s also a waste of time to call professors because they are not allowed to talk about their 18-and-older students without their permission, even to the parents.

Betty Ming Liu

  • Attend parents weekends if you can. “I felt compelled to attend parents weekend during freshman year — and realize that it wasn’t important to go again. But I went again anyway because kids get lonely when they see other kids with their parents and there’s no family for them. So the second year, I went and we went out to eat with one of my daughter’s friends — a lovely young woman whose parents never come to any school activities because they can’t afford to visit.”
  • Take your child and his or her friends out to eat when visiting. “These kids are always starving. Getting off campus is a treat for them and makes my generosity seem so special!”
  • Send care packages. “I never went away to college so I had no idea that care packages were important, or what they should include. But it’s been fun for both me and my daughter. I’ve sent socks, brownies, Starbucks gift card, a hometown newspaper, birthday gifts. She likes getting cards, too, so once in a while, I send holiday cards.”
  • Attend your child’s various events. “I love attending my daughter’s dance recitals. It’s a chance to be there and be part of an activity she truly loves.”
  • Encourage your child to bring college friends home to visit and/or stay over. “It’s great to combine the two worlds of [my daughter’s] past and present and make them one.”
  • If you can afford it, pay for a summer or semester abroad and try to get there for a visit. “It will be an experience you both won’t regret.”

Vivien Orbach Smith:

  • Don’t underestimate the value of text messaging. When a phone conversation isn’t possible, a round of texts can convey not only information in real time, but also mutual affection, humor and support.
  • Set up some form of video chat for grandparents who may have difficulty hearing over the phone and who are aided by the visuals. “My late father got a huge kick out of Skyping with my daughter and her dorm mates, and vice versa. When he passed away, the support was tremendous from her college friends who had become genuinely fond of ‘Opapa.’ ”


Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo:  JannisWerner /iStock

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