Being a college parent is hard work. Sometimes it is hard work because of the things that you need to do, but sometimes, being a college parent is hard work because of what you need not to do. Sometimes the hard work is standing back and allowing your student to take control of the experience. Although you may be on the sidelines of this experience, you can still be present, needed, and very much part of the fabric of your student’s experience.
We’d like to suggest five important jobs for college parents. You may not do all jobs equally well. You may need to experiment and practice some skills before you become proficient at them. But we’d like to suggest that you have five important tasks as a college parent.
Provide support – As parents, we provide the support system, the safety net, and the encouragement for our students to set out on their own. They are able to venture forth because they know that we are there for them. Our task is not to “lead the charge,” but to be present and encourage, serve as a sounding board, and continue to be there when things may not go as planned.
Encourage risks – Of course, there are some risks that you do not want to encourage. You may need to help your college student determine appropriate risks and inappropriate risks. In many ways, students do not need encouragement to take risks; it seems to come naturally. However, you may need to help your student recognize some appropriate risks – perhaps reaching out to new friends, perhaps experimenting with a new interest or major, perhaps reaching for a leadership position on campus.
Look for the positive – Because your student is comfortable with you, and you are a safe listener, you may be the person to whom she will vent when things are not going well. You may be the person who hears about the discouragement or the disappointments. You may need to help your student put her experiences into perspective and to look at the larger picture. You may need to help your student recognize those things that are going well. If your student makes mistakes, or makes poor choices, it may be difficult to find the positive in her experiences, but if you can help her learn how she can build on her experiences, she will be able to use those experiences to her advantage.
Provide constructive feedback – Just as you need to help your student find the positive in his experiences, you may need to provide feedback or give some advice. It is important to remember, however, that your job is to give the feedback or advice and then allow your student to take it or not. You may, however, have some insight and understanding of a situation that your student does not. Letting him know how you feel and what you think and suggest is important.
Provide financial guidance – Some students are very fortunate and have unlimited funds and will never need to worry about finances. For the majority of students, however, personal financial management may be mysterious and overwhelming. As college parents, it may be important that we step in and help our student understand how to think about and deal with her money. You may need to help your student learn to be competent in budgeting, use of credit cards, understanding interest rates, balancing a checkbook, etc. Helping your student understand these skills early on will prevent serious financial difficulties later.
Each college student is different. Each family of a college student is unique. You may feel that there are other areas in which you need to provide guidance for your student. You may feel that you are proficient in some of these tasks and need to brush up in other areas. We complete many small tasks all of the time, but take some time to think about the important goals that you have for yourself as a college parent. It will help you to provide the important assistance that your college student may need.