When my eldest child left for college, he chose not to call, text or email us for three weeks. This was his way of separating, but I didn’t like it. My daughter, on the other hand, follows the more typical college student practice of phoning me on her way to class. From a parent’s perspective, neither of these communication styles is particularly desirable. But we take what we can get. Technology may have made communicating with your college student easier. But in fact, modern communication vehicles compound age-old communication issues between parents and our emerging adult children.
Cell phones make communicating with your college student easier
It goes without saying that cell-phone equipped college kids are more “in touch” today than we were. Members of our generation generally shared a landline phone with one or more roommates. Sometimes the best way to reach a friend was the memo board on her dorm room door. Now parents can call kids directly, plus we can send quick emails or texts like, “good luck on your midterms!” or “buy a plane ticket home before prices go up!” There’s no need to plan for a Sunday night phone call or interrupt our kids’ busy (ahem) schedules with a short message or reminder.
Cell phones make authentic communication harder
Even with smart phones everywhere, authentic communication between parents and our college children remains elusive. While it’s great to receive a photo of your child and her roommates, you’d really like to know how she feels about her relationships with them. You wish you knew whether she wants to be going out with her roommates, or whether she’d prefer to be doing something else. In short, you wish you could tell from the photo whether she “fits in.” But you can’t. It’s even worse with boys, since most of them give their parents minimal information. When they lived at home, at least you could see them and observe how they were doing. Now you’re at the mercy of their choice to reply (or not) to your messages. My youngest has a personalized ringtone for me in the tune of La Bamba, “You got a call from Mama.” It’s hilarious, but I can be sure he won’t answer the phone without knowing I’m on the other end.
Communicating with your college student: The iConnected Parent
The iConnected Parent, first published in 2010, addresses cultural shifts in parent/student communications that parallel changes in technology. Written by Barbara K. Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, and Abigail Sullivan Moore, a journalist who reports on high school and college for the New York Times and other publications, the book compiles Dr. Hofer’s research on undergrads at Middlebury and the University of Michigan in 2006. While it paints a picture of helicopter parents who can’t leave their children alone at college, it also connotes the complexity of parent/child relationships in the Internet age.
Parents and students average 13.4 contacts per week
A frequently cited statistic from The iConnected Parent is that, on average, college students and their parents communicate (via phone, text or email) 13.4 times per week. This figure is slightly higher for girls and slightly lower for boys, but it doesn’t vary by ethnicity, race or distance from home. (Ch 2) While parents initiate more of the contacts than kids do, communication goes both ways. And habits that started in high school, such as a parent helping to edit a child’s paper, can continue throughout college thanks to the ease of emailing documents back and forth.
Problems with the “electronic leash”
In addition to emphasizing the student’s need to further his/her own development by separating from home, The iConnected Parent points out that parents are short-changing themselves by staying too connected to their kids. In past generations, the empty nest period tended to give parents a chance to reinvigorate their marriages and explore new interests or careers. Now parents never completely end their child-rearing years, as they continue to manage their children’s lives via cell phone and Internet. A conscientious parent may feel she needs to be constantly available to her college-age children — indeed, her kids depend on instant access. But such an arrangement heightens stress for parents and can even create a false sense of security for the child. (Ch 6)
Communicating with your college student: cut the cord
For the sake of parents as well as kids, the authors say, both parties need to “cut the cord.” How easy this is to do depends on patterns established during childhood. The authors’ observations suggest that helicopter parenting has lasting consequences, and their research highlights parent/child relationships with these types of patterns firmly in place. Given this vantage point, I feel relieved to have fewer contacts per week with my college kids than their study revealed to be the norm. At the same time, however, it would be nice for my offspring to phone home once in a while . . . A future post will offer tips on communicating with your college student. But if I’m going to achieve the average 13.4 communications with each of my college kids this week, I’ve got to shift my attention to texting and calling now. TTYL.
the girl who owns the world via Flickr, Stuart Miles via freedigitalphotos.net, Amazon