Parenting 101: When to let go

Time was, seeing a child off to college meant dropping him at orientation; helping him lug stuff on move-in day; buying sheets, textbooks and maybe a mini-fridge; saying goodbye and sending money.

Not anymore.

Today's universities are facing — and, in most cases, welcoming — parents who are much more involved in their children's lives than in previous generations.

"Parents are used to being in charge — checking attendance, grades, papers, assignments, e-mailing teachers, that sort of thing," said Wade Robinson, vice president for campus life at Wichita State University. "You get in a habit, and it builds expectations.

"So we have discussions every year about how (college) students are on their own, and they're responsible.... I hate to use the word 'weaning,' but for some parents it's an issue."

Meddling, obnoxious "helicopter parents," who hover over children and swoop in to handle their affairs, are pretty rare on campus, Kansas college officials say.

But several factors, including technological advances, ultra-competitive college admissions and the rising cost of college, have altered family dynamics and changed the way parents relate to young adult children.

According to a 2006 survey by College Parents of America, about 73 percent of parents said they communicate "at least two to three times a week" with a son or daughter who is in college. About 31 percent, or nearly 1 in 3, communicate daily.

Most Kansas colleges encourage parents to attend freshman orientation and offer special sessions geared specifically to them.

During parent sessions at the University of Kansas, officials encourage parents "to realize their changing role — to being a coach and consultant instead of a primary care provider," said Marlesa Roney, vice provost for student success at KU.

Officials review basic procedures, such as financial aid deadlines and where to get parking permits, but also address the range of emotions parents might be feeling.

"Some are happy to finally turn that bedroom into an office," Roney said. "With others, there's an incredible sense of loneliness."

Jan Doran, a single mother whose daughter Victoria will be a sophomore at Kansas State University this fall, said she was miserable on move-in day last August.

"I got out of the car and I just stood there. I couldn't move," said Doran, a lawyer. After settling Victoria in her dorm room, Doran and a friend headed back to Wichita. About 15 minutes outside Manhattan, she got a text from her daughter.

"She said, "I just met the football player across the hallway.' And I was like, 'Turn this car around now!'... It sounds funny, but it was really hard. There was this air of desertedness about my house. Not having her around was so strange, so sad."

Doran kept in almost daily touch with her daughter. She started the year calling each morning to make sure Victoria was up and getting ready for class. "But I was very quickly informed that was not necessary," she said.

Marjorie Savage, author of "You're on Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years," is not a fan of the term "helicopter parent" and says today's parents too often get a bad rap.

With the rare exception, most college parents don't hover as much as communicate, interact, guide and encourage, Savage said. That kind of involvement, when appropriate, can be positive.

"Many college students consider a parent their best adviser," said Savage, director of parent programs at the University of Minnesota.

"While I would have gone to a classmate with whatever the day's problem happened to be, today's students hit their parents with it instead. And because they have the technology to communicate instantly, calling home is a common first step."

Martha and Randy Ferguson's only child, 18-year-old Ben, will start his freshman year at Manhattan Christian College this month. Instead of focusing on his impending absence, Martha says she's looking forward to having more time for full-time work and other interests.

"I kind of made him my focus for so long," she said. "Now I joke about painting his room pink and putting some frilly curtains in there."

One helpful bit of advice Martha took away from parent orientation: "There will come a time in their first semester when they'll say they just don't want to do this anymore," she said. "Our job is to make them do it, to convince them they can.

"He's been raised to be independent and think for himself.... Now there's a lot of life he's just going to have to learn on his own."

Some parents' worries about college are understandable, experts say. Students can get into trouble with finances, sexual activity, alcohol and drugs. Shootings like the ones at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University prompt concerns about personal safety on campus.

Add to that a shaky economy — and the fact that flunking out could mean thousands of dollars of debt for a student's family — and it's no wonder parents want to keep close tabs on their kids.

But federal laws that protect student privacy mean that, with some exceptions, parents aren't entitled to see a student's grades or related records. Officials review those laws during orientation.

"That's one of those transitions parents have to make: The student is responsible for their grades," said Heather Reed, associate dean and director of student life at K-State.

"Parents understand that, but that doesn't mean their care or their desire to help automatically goes away," she said. "If they hear things are tough, they want to help. If they hear things are academically challenging, they want to help intervene."

Professors say calls or e-mails from parents to challenge grades, inquire about projects or even check attendance are rare but do happen. They usually explain that they're legally bound to talk only with students.

"We try to explain that this is, in fact, good preparation for a career," said Savage, the author. "At some point a student is going to have to deal with an authority figure.

"The professor, the parent and the college all have the same goal in mind: We all want that student to become a mature, responsible adult."

Doran, the Wichita mom, said she called her daughter a lot — probably too much — during the first month or so of Victoria's freshman year.

"I worked really hard in phone calls to stop telling her what to do," she said. "Instead of 'You need to do.. 'I would say, 'You probably ought to think about this.' It was a very conscious change in my words as well as my thought process."

Their relationship remains close. Victoria weathered tough classes and "friend drama" and struggled with a decision to change her major, Doran said, with only long-distance guidance from Mom. This summer, Victoria asked her mom to visit her more often this coming year.

"It helped a lot to know that she was very well prepared for this," Doran said. "She was really, really ready."