Reframing our work with Parents



Every year, we see a number of articles written on parents and their influence on their college student. We even have labels for these types of parents: Helicopter parents, snow plow parents, etc. More recently, I came across this article from the Washington Post titled “How Helicopter Parents are Ruining College Students”. Ruining? I think that’s a little over dramatic and rather I would say, holding students back from becoming dependent human beings. The article itself is not wrong, in fact I worked many times with helicopter parents, but I do think this article is one-sided and doesn’t talk about the positive things that parents do while their student is in college.

I’ve had conversations with parents that run the gamut: from roommate issues to assignments issues, to mental health and removal from housing. In all of these conversations, I’ve learned that parents really just want what is best for their student. In fact, on an occasion when talking to a parents about a mental health issue (they came to me about it) it really helped me to have that context when working with that student. They were being advocates for the best support for their student.I explained to them that I was not a certified counselor, but at least they prepared me for what I could possibly encounter with that student living in my residence hall. In making phone calls to parents regarding medical emergencies with their student, I found that 99% of the time, they were grateful for the phone call and that someone from the institution cared about their student and was relaying information (to the best that we could) to them.

Over the summer, I took it upon myself to attend a parent’s orientation, specifically, the open Question and Answer session where parents asked questions to a student panel. Here are some of the questions they asked:

1. What is the process for reporting a sexual assault case?

2. What is the process for changing roommates?

3. How much time do you spend studying and is it possible to study in your dorm (sic) room?

4. What can you tell me about Greek Life here? Do fraternities and sororities haze?

5. How supported do you feel by your dept/career center as far as getting jobs/internships?

6.  How can I access my students’ grades?

7. What if my student cannot understand the instructor? (this was in reference to international grad students and their ability to teach their undergrad students b/c of language barrier)

8. What programs/ initiatives/resources do you have on campus to educate about sexual assault.

It was super insightful to see what parents were asking. What I took away from that session were the concerns and issues of concern for this group of parents. In thinking about how I do my job, I was determined to work in my area on how to incorporate answers to these questions into the work that I do with my students.

While working at another institution, I was given the opportunity to talk with parents at an informal reception during orientation. This was by far one of my favorite events as it gave me a more causal and informal space to chat with parents. Working in residence life at the time, I was a hot commodity once room assignments were sent out to the students. Parents had a ton of questions about room layout  and since I worked in a first year residence hall, I carried around the dimensions (#protip). I also had business cards handy just in case parents needed a contact on move-in day. All in all, parents really just wanted to know that someone at the university cared about them and their student.

Of course, not every conversation is going to go smoothly. At the heart of every conversation I have with parents, they want as much transparency as I can give them and want to know why. I once had a conversation with a parent about judicial outcomes and they wanted to know why our outcomes were more sanctioned (read: monetary) based as opposed to educational based. I wish I had a better explanation for them instead of ” judicial affairs/Deans office/general council are the ones who make those decisions”. I agreed with the parent (my judicial philosophy leans more toward the education) but unfortunately the philosophy of the department did not reflect the same. I encouraged the parent to have their child put in for an appeal and encouraged the parent to speak with someone in our judicial office because maybe that might shed light onto changing the judicial process.

Most of the time, I read/hear student affairs professionals complain about parents. I challenge my colleagues to do two things: have a conversation with parents either on the phone when they call to resolve and issue or during parents weekend AND attend the parents orientation session(s).  With a little extra effort in working with parents, our experiences can be more positive. In thinking about the wants and needs from both the professional (us) and the parents, we both want the same thing: for their student(s) to be successful in their time with us. Perhaps it is time that we stop working against each other and start working together.

1 comment

  • ammamarfo

    The Washington Post article comes from a narrative that’s easy to identify. Can we complain about parents? Sure. That’s easy. The ones who are problematic are louder. In a way, this isn’t unlike the recent Diane Rehm Show that largely blasted the concept of fraternity and sorority life, with few objections or “statements of exception.”

    The fact of the matter is, what WaPo or Diane Rehm see as statements of exception, are probably the norm. We just have to make those conversations- the ones that are rewarding, easy, and positive- louder than the criticism. If we do it, the press and popular opinion will eventually follow.

    Thanks for challenging the norm, as always 🙂

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