Best supporting role: How to help your child succeed at college

Letting go as your child enters collegiate life can be difficult. Stepping back into the supporting role will help them have a successful college career.

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  • Last month, my husband and I dropped off our third child at college. It is a bittersweet time to watch your child, whom you helped learn to walk and talk and ride a bike, now enter the adult world. But your role in your child’s life is now shifting at this point from being center stage to more on the wings. It is time to let them take the lead.

  • In the world of theater a supporting actor should usually not upstage the starring or main actor or actress. As your child enters college it is his turn to have the leading role, and as a parent it is your turn to step back and let him shine. This is the moment you have spent 18 years preparing her to reach. Here are four cues for you to take as the supporting actor to help your child succeed in this stage of her life.

  • Let him lead

  • Let your child take the lead in determining your involvement in orientation activities, setting up services on campus, moving in and the communication level between you.

  • Our oldest daughter mentioned her appreciation that when we dropped her off at college we did not hover over her during her orientation. We let her determine which activities she would attend and this allowed her to make new friends and feel in control of her experience. Resist the urge as parents to attend every part of orientation with your child. Let her have the joy of independence.

  • Our son has Asperger’s and with this disability he still needs some accommodations in classroom settings. He, however, took the initiative to call the student services at his university, set up an appointment and convey his paperwork to them.

  • When it comes to moving into the dorms or a new apartment, allow your child to determine how much assistance she wants. When our second daughter moved into her dorm, she and her cousin asked that we leave for a while and let them unpack. They even took it upon themselves to purchase their books for the semester and the Ethernet cord they needed for Internet service.

  • Finally, let your child determine the level of communication with you. In most cases, they will call or text more frequently than if you had set an expected amount. This does not mean you cannot call or text them, but by letting them take the lead on this you help them learn to value your relationship. My kids usually call or text as they are walking to and from class or when they have big news. I love that they want to share their experiences with me, but I don’t need to have daily or hourly reports on every aspect of their life.

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  • Let him choose

  • Let your child choose his own field of study, the classes he will take, and how he will spend his time.

  • Encourage your child to study his options, discuss them with you and then make the final decision that is right for him.

  • When it comes to creating his class schedule let your child decide the number of credits (within the range of full-time credits) he will take. Some want to begin with a fairly light load to get their feet wet. Others will take a demanding load right from the start.

  • How your college child spends his time is another area in which the choice is not yours. You won’t be there to watch over every step anyway. One bad semester will usually awaken him to the need to spend more time in the library and less socializing on the quad.

  • Let him speak up

  • Hopefully your child has already learned to be his own advocate. My son does not do well with online tests and his math professor had the students take an online assessment. After doing poorly, my son emailed the professor and let him know of his disabilities and accommodations. The professor gladly let him come to his office and retake the exam. I am not sure if the outcome would have been as favorable if I had been the one to call.

  • Let him fall and pick himself up

  • The hardest part of watching a child learn to ride a bike is watching him fall. Sometimes he scrapes a knee. But if you don’t let him get back up and on the bike to try again, he will never know the feeling of freedom riding a bike will give him. So as your child starts this new part of his life, let him fall and get himself back up.

  • If she misses an assignment, she needs to accept the consequences. Usually that means a zero for that grade. If a child fails a test, he needs to accept those consequences as well. Most likely that child will learn to study harder and prepare for class better.

  • An NBC News article in May discussed the consequences of when a parent steps in for this type of situation. A father called a professor when his son got a C on an exam. The professor said, “What the dad didn’t know is that the phone call actually undermined his son, leaving the young man feeling insecure and incapable, not empowered and supported.”

  • As we attended the welcome for parents at our son’s university, the president, President Kim B. Clark made the comment that we should not be a “snowplow parent,” one that clears the path of all obstacles for their child.

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  • As parents if you have done your job, your child should be well prepared to face the challenges of college and life beyond. For more tips, see my article about preparing children for college. Sit back and enjoy your child in the starring role of his life.

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Robyn Carr graduated in English and is the mother of five and grandmother to two adorable granddaughters. She currently lives in Windermere, FL.  

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