Voices | Bella English

College prep for parents

By Bella English
July 20, 2009
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The auditorium was full of nervous folks clutching orientation packages to chests as they took their seats. Would college be everything they hoped? Some looked around, sizing up one another. Others began to rifle through the thicket of materials they’d been handed.

“Mark your calendars now,’’ a faculty member announced. “Sunday, May 19, 2013, for commencement services.’’

We were the parents, not the students, and we had been “strongly encouraged’’ to attend a recent orientation session at the university our children will attend in the fall. While our kids were at separate meetings, we were put through an exhaustive daylong program I nicknamed “College for Dummies.’’

With lectures from deans, advisers, professors, and students - aided by PowerPoint presentations, maps, pie charts, and brochures - we learned all about academic advising, college transition, the health center, meal plans, career guidance, financial options, campus safety, IT issues, student life, the honor pledge, work-study, and more.

Each of us was given a refrigerator magnet with the number for the Parent Helpline on it, courtesy of the Parent and Family Affairs Department. We could call the number any time: “If you haven’t heard from your kid in a week and you usually hear from him three times a day,’’ as the speaker put it. There was also a flier from the counseling center: “Tips to Help You and Your Student Adjust to College.’’ (Excuse me, but I’m not going to college.) And a slide show called “Parents as Partners.’’

Old fart alert: Here’s how it went for me, long ago. My sister drove me to college. There was no parent orientation, parent helpline, or even parents’ weekend. The only parental connection with campus was paying the tuition. Somehow, generations of college students managed to survive with this minimalist approach.

To be fair, my son will be attending a huge school 500 miles away for which we are shelling out some serious cash. The orientation session did raise my comfort level. But it also raised my anxiety level. I hadn’t thought, as one chart showed me, about developmental challenges such as competence, autonomy, identity, and intimacy. I’m much more concerned about my son’s ability to get to class on time.

Nor had I realized, as another chart pointed out, that “The problems are not the problem. Ineffective coping and problem-solving are the problems.’’ Funny, I always thought the problem was . . . the problem.

Here’s the bite: You pay tuition, room and board, etc., but if your child is over 18, you don’t have access to either his grades or his health records - something my generation of boomers engineered when we were young. (Be careful what you wish for.) So your child could be pulling Ds and in the infirmary and you’d never know it, unless he chose to disclose it to you or agrees to give you access via a parental PIN number.

At orientation, we were told that when we move our child into the dorm this fall, we should try to bring three people and our own “hand truck.’’ When I went away to college, I recall taking a suitcase and a duffel bag - and I’m a girl. We were also told about a website where we can order birthday cakes, balloons, and such for our children. What, no pony rides?

But I was most interested in the campus police chief. He told us all about security: two card swipes and a key to get into a dorm room, 24/7 escort service, hundreds of blue light emergency phones, text messages for crises.

One irate dad in the crowd stood up and said his daughter had spent a night in the dorm and reported that “every single room was filled with pot smoke.’’ What could campus cops do? Could they send in sniffer dogs?

“If I let the dogs in there, they’d go insane,’’ replied the very honest chief.

Around the same time I went to orientation, I read an article in Psychology Today headlined “A Nation of Wimps.’’ The subhead was: “Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the bumps out of life for their children. However, parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile . . .’’

It’s true. My generation of parents has so cosseted our children that in some ways we’ve crippled them. With the cellphone the world’s longest umbilical cord, we’re rarely out of touch. Instead of easing our angst, technology often has the opposite effect: We now worry when we don’t hear from them “enough.’’

Having said that, I just got text-messaging. And now I text my son - away at a camp job - goodnight.