College Student Life

Understanding the experiences of today’s college students and their parents

How Should Parents Relate to Today's College Student?

How have parent/college student relationships changed with the generations?

Over a period of more than four decades, I had the opportunity to work with three different generations of college students and their parents. As those decades went by, it was interesting to see the nature of the role assumed by parents evolve. While each family has individual differences in its dynamics and does not necessarily fit a sterotype, there clearly have been observable trends or modal responses for each generation.

As I began my professional career in 1970, I was working with my own generation, the Boomers, who tended to maintain some distance from their parents, were fairly independent, and tended to take on their own problems and not seek help or intervention from home. A contributing factor here was that many of us Boomers were First Generation college students. As a result, many of the parents of Boomer college students, having not gone to college, were unfamiliar with a college environment and its administrative structure and were not prone to engage with professors and deans. The norm for contact between students and parents tended to be a weekly phone call or letter and contact between parents and college offices was very limited and sporadic.

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Around 1980, the first of the GenXers began arriving on our campuses who had grown up as "Latch Key Kids" with high trust and independence. We continued to see parents not heavily engaged in the college experience of their students. In fact, I can remember that there was almost an aloofness on their part. I can illustrate that with a couple of examples. In one case, we were dealing with a student who really should not have been at the university at that point in time and we decided to use the emergency exception under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and call the parents and ask for their assistance. The response we got was: "Well, I'm headed off to a class reunion for several days and maybe I can come after I get back." In the second case, the circumstances were very similar and we decided to call the family and the response was also similar: "I'm about to leave for a cruise and perhaps I can come to the campus when I return."

Then, around the year 2000, the GenY/Millennials first arrived on campus and with them came some real changes in student/parent dynamics. The pendulum began to swing to the situation of parents being very involved in the lives of their college students and being very close to their students. On the surface, this would seem to be a very desirable situation. However, many families now bring with them very high and often unrealistic expectations of the college experience and their interaction with professors and administrators. On top of that, my sense is that a variety of background factors have created high anxiety in parents and they have responded with desires and expectations that are often unrealistic, highly invasive, and contrary to the development of responsibility and independence in their students. Those background factors include pressures coming from students growing up in a more and more competitive and heavily scheduled world of play dates, traveling soccer teams, inflated grades, extracurricular activities, college admissions statistics, etc. Likewise, school and societal safety issues can lead one to obsessive responses. Parents who fit the norm have, of course, been labeled as "helicopter parents" or "stealth bombers" because of their hovering and overly aggressive behaviors. I have personally observed many parents exhibiting these kinds of behaviors: expecting to meet and talk one-on-one with each of their student's professors during Parents/Family Weekend (in a primary school kind of way), expecting copies of weekly grade reports, trying to negotiate a specific housing or roommate assignment for their student, renting a hotel room for the entire first week of classes ( "in order to help their student adjust!"), attempting to sit in on a student's first job interview, accompanying their student to their interview for graduate or professional school, and trying to negotiate the terms of their student's first employment contract.

These parent dynamics have prompted many colleges and universities to spend more time in summer orientation programs with parents in an effort to help channel their high interests in positive and productive ways and to teach parents how to be effective partners with the institution for the benefit of their student. Likewise, many schools have established positions and/or special offices to work with parents and their concerns. Such approaches seem to be helping in reassuring and redirecting parents with their concerns.

So, how should today's parents relate to their students? Are we doing enough to stave off the helicopter approach? Can we swing the pendulum back to a more reasonable position? What needs to be done to bring that about?

Edward F. D. Spencer, Vice President Emeritus for Student Affairs at Virginia Tech, retired after a 42-year career in administration and teaching at Virginia Tech and the University of Delaware.

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