College Confidential

What all freshman (and their parents) should know about entering higher ed.

Preparing Your Child for College: One Professor's Perspective

Ways to help your child succeed in college, and in life.

In his recent State of the Union address, Barack Obama talked about the need to win the future. At the White House website, there is a page dedicated to explaining this vision. Part of it reads as follows:

"To win the future, we have to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world, tapping the creativity and imagination of our people."

How can we accomplish this? There are many things we can do, at many different levels, but one barrier to this is that many kids aren't prepared for college. Another is that many colleges don't value undergraduate education as highly as they should. Here, I'd like to talk about preparing your child for college so that he or she is in a good position to be a creative, imaginative, and sound critical thinker. If you are planning on your child attending college one day, I'd like to offer some friendly and hopefully helpful advice. As someone who teaches in a university setting, there are several things that I think we parents can seek to do to help our children prepare for college and develop during their time in college. So, in no particular order:

1. Cultivate and value honesty

As a professor, I am at times disheartened because of the amount of lying and cheating that I see. Some of it I can prove, and at other times I merely have my suspicions. I've been lied to about a loved one having cancer, and I'm almost sure people have lied to me about the death of a grandparent, given the number of times I have students going to such funerals. If you want your child to have a deeply worthwhile experience in college, it is essential that she have the virtue of honesty. If college is only about receiving a credential to give her more options on the job market, then why care if she receives it through cheating, lying, and a minimal outlay of effort? Well, for one thing, a life of cheating, lying, and minimal effort is not a very satisfying or fulfilling life. For another, it would be nice if your child knew how to do the job she has ostensibly been preparing to do during her time in college. Finally, part of the value of college is not the credential or reward at the end, but lies instead in the process of actually engaging ideas through critical thought and reflection. These skills will serve her well not just in her professional life, but in all of life. This takes work, but it is worth it.

2. Encourage regular reading

Related to this, and on a very practical level, reading should be a regular part of life at all stages of development. I am amazed at how much some of my students have read prior to college, and at how little others have read. There are many reasons to encourage reading and limit time in front of screens (smart phones, TVs, computers, gaming systems, and whatever else is on the technological horizon). Reading is not always fun -- though it often can be -- I struggle to read at times when I'd rather do something else. But life is not always about fun. Reading develops the mind and ability to communicate in ways that will foster success in college and beyond. My well-read students are more successful in the classroom because they are better thinkers, writers, and communicators.

3. Don't be a helicopter parent

Though it is rare, I've had parents contact me about a child's grade or circumstances. There may be times when this is appropriate, but in general I think it is best to let your college student learn to deal with these things on his or her own. You can and should support him, but don't live his life for him. The value of college is found in academics and in the opportunities for moral and social development that abound on campus. Don't prevent your child from growing in these ways by doing these tasks for him. And to do this, you must begin to transfer responsibility over his life to him in incremental steps in the pre-college years, so that he is better prepared for life away from home. Encourage him to take risks, and let him deal with the emotions and other challenges that failure can bring.

4. Help them realize they need to be responsible for managing their own lives.

In the end, it isn't you the parent or me the professor that is responsible for the life of your student. He or she is, and he or she needs to realize this and take it to heart. The ideal of in loco parentis is not as strongly in play as it used to be on college campuses, and we need to prepare our kids for their coming independence.

5. Do what you can to model and foster virtue

I discussed honesty above, but there are many other virtues that could be added. A discussion of them all would fill up a book. The cultivation of traits such as respect, tolerance, compassion, humility, courage, and many others will serve your child well both in and out of the classroom. I see a lack of humility and the presence of an abrasive arrogance in some students, and in many others a fear of taking risks and "looking stupid." As professors, we need to make sure we aren't in the business of humiliating our students, and parents need to help their children be prepared for the challenges that college will bring. (For more on why virtues are important in education, see this from philosophy professor Chris Panza.)

In closing, there are many professors who could benefit from taking much of the above advice to heart. Many of us can be difficult to work with, but many of us are not only passionate about our field of study, we're passionate about helping your child learn, grow, and prepare for the next stage of life. We would love it if he or she becomes a lifelong learner, and if we could play a role in that process. There are many other things that would be useful to think about here, but these are some of the things that jump to my mind based on my ten years or so of experience teaching in the college classroom. A child whose parents seek to do the above is not only poised for success, but is well on the way to a fulfilling life.

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