By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
No, this blog will not address financial support, but rather, emotional support. My family is not well-educated. I was the first person in our extended college to get a college degree higher than an associate’s degree. For the most part, I felt as if I was largely disowned by my family. Some of them said that they didn’t know how to talk to me since I was in college, and the others tended to dismiss my education altogether.
Family often does not really know how to help their college student to succeed in their education. Here in the Midwest, it’s not uncommon to expect their college students continue with farm duties, which are difficult and time-consuming. So, here are a few hints and things to keep in mind.
Let’s begin with a few things that everybody should know about college:
S/he is still the same person!!! If their education is surpassing your own, don’t let it intimidate you, and please do not start cutting conversations short or avoiding them out of fear that they’re “smarter” than you. If they’re smarter, then they’ve always been smarter. Education does not make you smart, it makes you better versed.
Their opinions may change. This is a good thing, because they are thinking for themselves. You don’t have to agree with them, that’s the beauty of America, but learn to listen and have healthy debates. Express your opinions, and let them express theirs, but in the end be sure that you respect each other and the right to disagree.
Just because their schedule is open does not mean they have free time. Primary and secondary education is a long well scheduled day, but in higher education, it is not uncommon to have classes three days a week and be done by lunch. This looks simple, but the basic assumption for any college is that for each hour spent in class, the student will spend two to three hours outside of class on preparation and homework. This means that a twelve credit hour course load is the equivalent of a thirty-six to forty-eight hour work week, which is a full-time job. Tuesday and Thursday “off” is not off, it’s actually homework day.
Your student is learning, growing, and experimenting. They may have difficulty in balancing entertainment with work, and it is not uncommon for students to struggle because they are taking too much time with entertainment (“partying” to use the vernacular). They may also be experimenting with things that are a concern to you (alcohol, drugs, sex). It’s important to help your student through this time, without becoming overbearing. If you try too hard to stop these behaviors, you run the risk of pushing them deeper into the hole. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I have seen these behaviors backfire. Based on my observations, here are my recommendations:
Offer to help your student build a schedule. Students suddenly find themselves with that open schedule I’ve already discussed, and often have difficulty balancing their academic duties with their free time. Explain to them what I said about the time for homework (this is the so-called “Carnegie” definition of credit hours), and offer to schedule time. In the actual physical schedule, write in at least three hours for each hour of each course (so if English is 3 hours, build an additional 9 hours spread out throughout the week and weekend for homework). Remember that this is not fixed; difficult courses may take more time, easier less, but if the student has the study time built in, they should be close. And always remember, it’s easier to take unneeded time from study than it is to find needed time not built in to the calendar.
Respect their study calendar. If a student is scheduled for study, act as if they are at work, because while they’re in college, their job is studying.
Respect their need for fun. This is a difficult one, since “partying” may not seem like a learning opportunity. I never did “party”, and I feel the loss. I missed out on the opportunity to balance my time, and I’m still a workaholic to this day. What’s more, I’ve missed the opportunity to learn important socializing skills.
Respect their decisions, but be alert to changes. Your student may decide to experiment with sexuality, drinking and drugs, and this may be hard for you, but resist lashing out. If you come across too harshly, you’ll push them away at a time that they likely need you the most. Instead, try making sure that they are aware of the dangers, and how to protect themselves. Be open to discussing your decisions on these topics, and your lessons, including the hard ones. You were faced with these decisions as well, and it will probably do more harm than good to lie. You can set your boundaries (“…but in this house…”), but think of the consequences. At the same time, familiarize yourself with the warning signs of addiction, and be sure to discuss this with them.
It’s not easy having a child in college, especially for parents who have never experienced it. Talk with college advisers, and get the information you need to help your child be successful. A child will fall and scrape their knees while learning to walk. As parents, it’s a fine line to walk between allowing them to get their minor injuries so they learn, and hurting themselves too much. College is the same.
You can do this!