Parenting a First-Year Student: A Student's Perspective

Your student is about to enter a time at once exciting and frightening, a period of joy, pain, discovery, and disappointment. They'll leave as much different persons than they came.

You are entering this period with your student. You'll experience the same happiness and defeats as they – second hand, but just as vividly or achingly.

If you don't believe me, ask my Mom. She watched and waited and worried through four years of ups and downs and mediocres. She patiently accepted my progressions and my regressions. She tried, and sometimes failed to understand my way of thinking and doing and being.

And, maybe because of her, maybe in spite of her, I left university after four years a much different person than I'd begun – a much happier person.

So my advice is: watch and wait and worry and accept and understand. Your student will be happier for your efforts. So will you.

Of course, no one can ensure that you'll completely survive your student's first-year at university, but there are some guidelines that might help you make it with a minimum loss of sanity and a maximum strengthening of your new relationship.

The suggestions below are:

  • Purposely subjective;
  • Written by a just-graduated student who, therefore, thinks she knows everything about university, and therefore, doesn't;
  • Based mostly on careful observations of mistakes and/or breakthroughs made by her parents and the parents of her friends. At the most, they'll prepare you to deal effectively with some predictable first year conflicts. At the least, they'll make you think about your reactions to them and that can't hurt.

Rule One: Don't Ask them if they're Homesick

The power of association can be a dangerous thing. (A friend once told me ‘the idea of being homesick didn't even occur to me, what with all the new things that were going on, until my mom called one of the first weekends and asked “Are you homesick?” Then it hit me.)

The first few days/weeks of school are activity-packed and friend-jammed and the challenge of meeting new people and adjusting to new situations takes the majority of a first-year student's time and concentration. So, unless they're reminded of it, perhaps by a well-meaning parent, most students will probably be able to escape the loneliness and frustration of homesickness.

And, even if they don't tell you during those first few weeks, they do miss you.

Rule Two: Write (Even if they don't write you back)

Although first-year students are typically eager to experience all the away-from-home independence they can in those first few weeks, most are still anxious for family ties and the security those ties bring. This surge of independence may be misinterpreted by sensitive parents as rejection, but I'd bet that most new students (although 99% won't ever admit it), would give anything for some news of home and family, however mundane it may seem to you.

There's nothing more depressing than a week of empty mailboxes. (Warning! – students are busy so don't expect a reply to every letter or e-mail you send.) If you are using e-mail, you may get a reply more frequently simply because it's easier.

And of course, with today's great long distance phone rates, regular calls from home are much appreciated.

Rule Three: Ask Questions (But not too many)

First-year students are ‘cool' (or so they think), and have a tendency to resent interference with their newfound lifestyle, but most still desire the security of knowing that someone is still interested in them.

Parental curiosity can be obnoxious and alienating or relief-giving and supportive depending on the attitudes of the persons involved. “I-have-a-right-to-know” tinged questions, with ulterior motives or the nag should be avoided. However, honest inquiries and other “between friends” communication and discussion will do much to further the parent-student relationship.

Rule Four: Expect Change (But not too much)

Your student will change either drastically within the first months, slowly over the years, or somewhere in between. It's natural, inevitable, and it can be inspiring and beautiful. At times, it can be a pain in the neck.

University and the experiences associated with it can affect changes in social, vocational and personal behaviour and choices. An up-to-now wall-flower may experience a new popularity, a pre-med student may discover that biology is not her thing after all, or a high school radical may become a keen university student.

You can't stop change, you may not ever understand it, but it is within your power (and to everyone's advantage) to accept change.

Remember that your student will be basically the same person that you sent away to school, aside from such interest changes and personality revisions. Don't expect too much, too soon. Maturation is not an instantaneous or over-night process and you might well discover your freshman returning home with some of the habits and hang-ups, however unsophisticated, that you thought he or she had “grown out of”. Be patient.

Rule Five: Don't Worry (Too much) About the Overly-Emotional Phone Calls, Letters, or Emails

Parenting can be a thankless job, especially during the university years. It's a lot of give and only a little take.

Often, when troubles become too much for a first-year student to handle (a flunked test, ended relationship, and shrunken t-shirt all in one day), the only place to turn, write or dial is home. Often, unfortunately, this is the only time that the urge to communicate is felt so strongly, so you never get the hear about the “A” paper, the new relationship, or the domestic triumph.

In these “crisis” times your son or daughter can unload trouble or tears and, after the catharsis, return to routine, relieved and lightened, while you inherit the burden of worry.

Be patient with those “nothing-is-going-right”, “I-hate-this-place” phone calls or letters. You're providing a real service as an advice dispenser, sympathetic ear, or punching bag. Granted, it’s a service that makes you feel lousy, but it works wonders for a frustrated student. Like I said before, parenting can be a thankless job.

Rule Six: Visit (But not too often)

Visits by loved ones (especially when accompanied by shopping sprees and/or dinners out) are another part of the first-year events that students may be reluctant to admit liking, but would appreciate greatly. And, pretended disdain of those visits is just another part of the first-year syndrome.

These visits give the student a chance to introduce some of the important people in both of his/her now-important worlds (home and school) to each other. Additionally, it's a way for parents to become familiar with (and, hopefully, more understanding of) their student’s new activities, commitments, and friends.

Spur-of-the-moment “surprises” are usually not appreciated. (Preemption of a planned weekend of studying or other activities can have disastrous results). It's usually best to plan a weekend to see your student and the school; that way you may even get to see a clean room.

Rule Seven: Do not tell your student(s) that "These are the best years of their lives"

This first year (and the years that follow) can be full of indecisions, insecurities, disappointments, and, most of all, mistakes. They're also full of discovery, inspiration, good times and people.

It took a while (and the help of some good friends) for me to realize that I was normal and that my afternoon movie/paperback novel perceptions of what university was all about were inaccurate. It took a while for me to accept that being unhappy, afraid, confused, disliking people and making mistakes were all part of the show, all part of this new reality, all part of growing up. It took a while longer for my parents to accept it.

Any parent who believes that all university students get good grades, know what they want to major in, always have activity-packed weekends, thousands of close friends and lead carefree, worry-free lives is wrong. So are the parents that think that university-educated means mistake-proof. Parents that perpetuate and insist upon the “best years” stereotype are working against their student's already difficult self-development. Those that accept and understand the highs and lows of their student's reality are providing the support and encouragement where it's needed most.

Rule Eight: Trust Them

Finding oneself is a difficult enough process without feeling that the people whose opinions you respect most are second-guessing your own second-guessing. One of the most important things my mom ever wrote me in my four years at university was this: “I love you and want for you all the things that make you the happiest; and I guess you, not I, are the one who knows best what those things are”. She wrote that during my final year.

Believe it, mean it, and say it now