Reeling in the Parents
Reeling in the Parents
Are your parentals all up in your grill about life on campus? Here, tips on keeping it real with the parents. (Yes, it is cool to get along with ’em!)
You’re on your own … and you’re solid. But the parents? Outta control!
“Are you getting good grades, dear?” “You’re not taking pot, are you?” “How come you never call home?” Grrr ….
Look, your frustration is some pretty common stuff. A University of Michigan study found that the majority of parents and adult children get irritated with each other. “The parent-child relationship is one of the longest-lasting social ties,” says lead researcher Kira Birditt. “This tie is often positive, but it also commonly includes feelings of tension.”
We caught up with Marjorie Savage, Parent Program Director at the University of Minnesota and author of You're On Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years, to help tear through some conflict-inducing issues:
“I think parents have an image of overall lifestyle based on the college their student attends,” explains Savage. “There’s the football school, faith-based school, rural school. If there’s a perception the student isn’t living the way the school image suggests, confrontations are likely to arise.
“Many students spent their high school years meeting expectations based on how their families perceive them. College gives them an opportunity to reinvent themselves, and many piece together attributes from multiple subcultures. They might be a nerd in the classroom but a socialite in the dorm and Goth on Saturday night. To the parent, these changes come across as ‘This is not my child.’”
Quick fix: Nix the shock factor
“It’s OK that you’ve found new interests,” says Savage, “but also explain that you’re still living the family values. So when you show them the tattoo on your shoulder, be sure to point out that it won’t be visible when you dress for church.”
“Spending decisions say something about what’s important to us,” says Savage. “That’s where parents make judgments, and students hate being judged. Students see parents’ financial criticism as the ultimate form of control. They don't want to have to ask for and justify every little expense.
“Students typically understand that they have to work for their spending money, whether during summers or part-time jobs throughout the school year. Those who do get some form of allowance from their parents are wise to establish an amount at the beginning of each year and figure out a budget. If what they're getting isn’t enough, they might have to show their parents the math.”
Quick fix: Work it out
“If you need financial help,” advises Savage, “let your parents know you’ll share in the solution. Say something like, ‘I am careful and watch my money, but is it possible to up the amount for the rest of the year? I’ll work my old restaurant job over winter break to save, so we can cut my allowance back next semester.’”
Savage says parents and students have polarized POVs about the college experience: “Parents’ perception is about the major, grades and career. Students see college as a lifestyle, with a career as an eventual outcome.”
So while you’re enjoying personal freedom and perfecting your flip-cup skills, your parents want to know you’re taking the right courses -- and that you’re passing. If the folks are footing even part of your tuition bill, your GPA is their business. Even if they aren’t forking over any cash, they’re concerned about your academic success because … well, they care about you, OK? “I pay my tuition, but I keep my parents updated on my grades,” shares Quinnipiac University senior Meghan Trull. She works hard and wants them to know that.
Quick fix: Give it up
College students and their parents should discuss a mutually acceptable level of disclosure. “You can agree to talk about how you’re doing in classes without committing to reporting every test grade,” suggests Savage.
Trull’s mother once commented on her messy apartment, and that’s where Trull drew the line since she not only covers her own tuition but also living expenses. She lovingly told her mom she’s in no position to toss in an opinion. “I know where everything is, and my bills are paid,” insists Trull in her own defense.
Says Savage: “I don’t hear much about this at the college dorm stage, except for the typical ‘He can’t even do his own laundry’ comments. Where it comes up is when students plan to move to an apartment. Parents want to know if their student can cook, clean, handle bills, maintain a car and get by with no adult supervision. Parents are most concerned about whether children can do basic skills, not whether they perform them to high standards.”
Quick fix: Show ’em up!
“When I talk to students about their first apartment,” says Savage, “I tell them to do laundry next time they’re home, fix a few meals and clean up afterward, and pay attention to car maintenance issues. Parents notice those things and feel way better.”
Frequency of Contact
When University of Delaware senior Joe Debus moved out on his own, his mother required him to come home every Sunday regardless of his schedule. “Mom texted me 30 to 40 times a day,” says Debus. “She’d text me during class and work, and call on a daily basis.” Debus had several discussions with his mother about these invasions of privacy, his need for space and what he considered an appropriate amount of contact. This approach was the answer for them both.
“Communication is the answer to just about any issue,” says Savage. “But how often and by what means should families communicate, and what do we not need to talk about? I’ve had complaints from parents saying, ‘My son never calls,’ but I’ve also heard ‘My daughter tells me everything. I don’t need to know every detail of her life. TMI.’”
Quick fix: Make small talk
“Parents want to know their child is alive,” says Savage, “and a text message can meet that need. You don’t need 20-minute conversations every day, but you can be in touch by some means at least weekly even if it’s a matter of explaining, ‘I only have 10 minutes before class, but I wanted to check in.’ And establish boundaries. Discuss your friends without revealing details of dates or parties.”
“This is where phone calls and emails turn into problems,” warns Savage. “Students tend to call parents -- before talking to anyone on campus -- when something goes wrong. But they aren’t necessarily looking for solutions when they place the call.
“When students call with complaints about bad roommates, bad grades, bad professors or a bad cold, they’re trying to figure out a) Is this a problem?, b) Will I have to do something about it? and c) How do I even talk about it? When parents take control, students feel like a powerless child, and that’s not why they called home.”
Quick fix: Be crystal-clear
“Students can emphasize to parents, ‘I’ll figure this out; I just need to vent,’” says Savage. “But also let parents brainstorm, without making any promises to carry out their suggestions. Maybe they’ll remind you of resources you already knew about. Sometimes, parents actually do know the answer.”
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