Communicating with your college student

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.

Image credits:
the girl who owns the world via Flickr, Stuart Miles via, Amazon


Of poverty and prescription meds

Neither story was new news, but seeing both of them on yesterday morning’s front pages made me stop and ask, what is wrong with our country, and what is wrong with me?

First the San Jose Mercury warned, “Poverty Rate at 18-Year High,” with an article that largely recounted census data already known, such as 27% of African-Americans and Hispanics have incomes below the poverty line, and the hardest-hit among us are children and young adults.  But it also offered some personal vignettes to make the numbers seem more real.  For example, the author, Matt O’Brien, highlighted a single mother of two children who has moved in with her grandmother after losing her own apartment, but is in fact now moving from place to place since her grandma’s home is in foreclosure.

Stories like this woman’s are repeated all too often among the 46.2 million people who live in poverty in the U.S., officially earning less than $22,113 for a family of four.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around the numbers, but we’re talking about more than 15 percent of our population.

Then I turned to the New York Times on my iPad (yes, I acknowledge the irony), and one of the featured stories was about a clinic in rural Kentucky that has decided to stop issuing new prescriptions for Xanax and its generic equivalent, as well as to wean current patients off the drug because of concern over its abuse.  According to the article by Abby Goodnough, “While Kentucky and other states have focused largely on narcotic painkiller addiction, experts say that benzodiazepines, the class of sedatives that includes Xanax, are also widely misused or abused, often with grim consequences.”

I’ll be honest: my initial reaction was less than charitable. At first I thought, well, it seems like a drastic step to cut off all Xanax prescriptions, but maybe people in rural Kentucky just don’t know what’s best for them.  My judgmental attitude was only heightened by a quote from a disappointed clinic patient whose style of speech indicated a lack of education.  Referring to how her panic attacks had increased after switching off Xanax to its generic counterpart, she said, “But if this ain’t doing it, something’s got to change.”

Then I stopped myself.  You know, this lady was speaking the truth.  Something does need to change.  Why has this clinic and others like it experienced so much drug abuse among its patients in the first place?  Why do people in Appalachia and other rural areas suffer from panic attacks and depression?  I would guess it has a lot to do with the other story I happened to read about burgeoning poverty in America.  It’s hard to feel optimistic about the future when you’ve lost your job, haven’t been able to find another one and don’t know how you’re going to feed your family.  So changing my mind, I began to despair about the state of our economy and society, where people can’t find “honest work,” but somehow are able to get free or reduced-price prescriptions that help them deal with the stress of not being able to pay the bills — that dull the pain when they lose hope.  Not unlike the use of street drugs in poor urban settings, prescription drug abuse of the type seen at this Kentucky clinic goes hand in hand with rural poverty.

My reaction to problems that loom so large they seem unsolvable is, regrettably, one of distancing and distracting myself.  Other than writing checks to support organizations that assist the poor, or greeting a homeless “friend” I encounter regularly, I have little personal interaction with the poverty that exists right in front of me.  As for prescription meds, I wholeheartedly support using them to alleviate pain, anxiety and depression.  But my knowledge of prescription drug abuse is limited to things like the TV show “House,” where although the main character is an irascible Vicodin addict, he is nonetheless brilliant and, in his own way, lovable.  So in short, I know nothing of true poverty or real abuse of prescription drugs.  And I’m fine keeping it that way.  [Read more…]

Of flames and forks

The flaming email — we’ve all received them.  We might even admit we’ve sent one.  Maybe not a flame that rages like a “Howler” in Harry Potter, but certainly one that smolders.  While we think of internet flames as caustic remarks on public message boards, PC Magazine defines to flame as “to communicate emotionally via email.”  If that’s the case, I’m definitely guilty of flaming, as are some people who have emailed me without pausing to re-read or reconsider before hitting “send.”  Numerous publications have explored the flame phenomenon, including Wired and the New York Times. Flaming arises in part due to a key problem with the email genre — namely, the brain’s inability to discern “tone” in the absence of facial and voice cues. To me, however, email flames are more than poor “netiquette:” they reflect how manners are changing not only in our cyber-communities, but also in our “real time” relationships.

I  bristle when I enter a bistro or church service, and I see a man wearing a baseball cap.  While I realize such behavior is ubiquitous and even accepted in our culture, it still bothers me.  I can’t help it: I was raised in the South at a time when gentlemen removed their caps while attending church or dining inside.  They opened doors for ladies – didn’t just hand off door handles like relay batons to females entering behind them.

Yet I wonder, what IS it that causes us to “forget” our manners?  Are we in too much of a hurry?  Consider, for example, the school carpool line.  Drivers actually try not to recognize each other.  Allowing a car to merge ahead of you is a sign of weakness, as is a wave of thanks from the “merger” to the rare person who lets her merge.  It’s the driver’s job, after all, to stay isolated and maneuver as quickly as possible to her destination.  [Read more…]