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Walking the fine line: When does parent involvement become parent interference?

Parenting a college student is not what it used to be. When many of today’s college parents were 18, their parents had a hands-off approach. Those who attended college were expected to make their own choices and, in many cases, pay for their own education. The common refrain among college students a generation ago was, “I can do it on my own.”The common refrain among parents was, “He never writes!”or, “I’m lucky if she calls once a month!”

For today’s college students, however, the world is different. An 18-year-old would be hard-pressed to earn enough at a summer job or part-time campus job to afford tuition, room, and board. With e-mail, instant messaging, and cheap or free long-distance cell phone calls, most students are in touch with family members multiple times a week. U of M parent surveys show that more than 20 percent of students talk to their parents at least once a day and fewer than 5 percent talk to their parents less than once a week.

Parents themselves acknowledge that they are more involved in their students’ lives than their own parents were. In our 2006 parent survey we asked, “If you attended college, how would you compare the level of your involvement/communication with your student to the involvement/communication your parents had with you during college?”

Of parents who attended college, 85 percent said they are more involved or much more involved than their own parents were during their college years.

But when does involvement cross the line from being caring and supportive to meddling?

A parent’s role during the college years begins with serving as a sounding board. When students face a problem, they frequently turn to their parents first—before talking to anyone on campus. When they call home, students are trying to decide, “Is this a problem?”“Should I do something about it?”“How do I talk about it?”“Who might be able to help?”

Your role is to listen, to understand that your student is concerned, and to encourage her or him to look at the issue from different perspectives. You can remind your student of campus resources that will help. In most cases, your job is not to solve the problem for your child.

That doesn’t mean students no longer need their families. It means they may need parents, siblings, and other relatives in different ways. While the family role during the growing-up years was to protect and nurture the child, in the college years the role changes to mentoring and giving support.

Even as adults, we all want and need the understanding, love, and emotional support of our core family. But as adults, we also need to have confidence that we can manage our own lives, make our own choices, face our own challenges, and take personal pride in our own accomplishments.

When students work through problems on their own, they take critical steps in their personal and academic growth. They also find the people on campus who can help them, not only with the current situation but with future problems.

There are times, however, when parents do need to be involved. Family members should be aware of a student’s financial circumstances and decisions. If you are concerned that your child is not yet ready to take full financial responsibility, it’s useful to touch base from time to time. If a student falls into serious financial trouble, his or her debts can impact your family’s finances.

Physical and mental health are also areas where parents may need to intervene. In many cases, family members are the first to notice physical or mental health conditions. You know your student’s personal history and family history, so you may be more alert to certain symptoms. These are areas where an immediate response can make a difference.

The University has identified a list of student success outcomes—qualities and characteristics that we hope students will develop during their college years. See

We also have developed some desired parent outcomes that describe the parent role during the college years. See Desired Outcomes for Parent/Family Involvement.