Keeping parents’ ‘helicopters’ grounded during college

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The UCLA meeting hall was standing room only as campus psychologist Susan Bakota delivered a message to about 150 parents gathered at an orientation session designed just for them.

“Take a moment to inhale and release your concerns and anxieties and release your student to this wonderful adventure,” she told the audience, whose children are about to enroll as UCLA freshman. “And I suggest you too enjoy the ride.”

That may be easier said than done for many parents who are dropping their children off for the first time at a big university in a huge city. But at this time of year, more and more colleges across the country are attempting to teach anxious mothers and fathers a lesson not contained in any traditional curriculum: Let go.

Facing a generation of text-messaging parents who are often intensely involved in their offspring’s lives and academic careers, many schools are launching or expanding orientation events to inform parents about all sorts of details of university life. There are parents-only workshops on health insurance, dorm life, financial aid, academics, alcohol abuse and policing.

More important, campus officials say, is explicit advice aimed at easing the pain of separation for the older generation and discouraging intrusive habits that have earned some the title of “helicopter parents” for their habit of hovering.

Even in the age of cellphones and Skype, families of new college students have to learn that “life is going to change for both the students and parents,” USC’s orientation director, Thomas Studdert, said at a recent parent meeting at the Los Angeles campus. “It’s no longer being a parent of a child, it’s being parent of an adult.”

Last year, 97% of U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities surveyed had held orientations for parents of incoming students, according to the University of Minnesota’s National Survey of College and University Parent Programs, a study of 500 schools. That’s up from 61% in 2003, the study showed.

Many schools are starting parent volunteer organizations and hiring staff to serve as full-time parent liaisons, sometimes to handle complaints, sometimes with an eye to fundraising.

Because of frequent text messages and e-mails home, parents today know significantly more about their college-age children’s lives and problems than parents knew a generation ago. So, orientation officials say, they try to give parents information to help them refer their children to the right campus resources. The parents then are encouraged to let students do the rest legwork themselves.

That increased communication between students and parents — and parents and colleges — “is not either good or bad. It’s just the way life is,” said Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.

Savage, the author of a guidebook called “You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here if You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years,” said few parents become a serious problem for schools. Parental intrusions tend to decline after freshman year, she said.

Craig Mack, president of the National Orientation Directors Assn., said another reason for colleges to pay attention to parental anxiety is the growing price of college tuition. “A lot of parents are paying big tabs, and they want to have a more active involvement in where their money is going,” he said.

The colleges also have a long-term financial interest in keeping them happy, Mack said. “If the student had a great experience and is gainfully employed after graduation, the parents are more likely to contribute to the school even if they are not alumni,” he said.

Success is not universal. Educators tell of parents who refuse to leave campus at the appropriate time, even if orientation schedules now often include a specific time to say goodbye. Some impersonate their children in telephone calls seeking information from campus offices. And some can’t stop protesting the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which keeps grades confidential unless students allow parental access.

Colleges keep trying. For example, some parents are surprised to learn during orientation at Washington University in St. Louis that they cannot participate in academic advising sessions at which students choose classes, said Danielle Bristow, director of first-year programs.

If the parents feel excluded, she explained, “we have to say, ‘we are sorry but this is not for you.’ ”

At UCLA, parents recently attended workshops on financial aid, health insurance and “What about MY Transition into College?” Staff members urged parents to shift their attention to children still at home, refocus on personal interests and even rediscover their own romantic lives.

“This is as big a transition for you as it is for them,” said Jacquelean Gilliam, UCLA’s director of parent programs.

The message reassured Ron Eastwood of the town of Spreckels in Northern California, whose only child, Sara, will start at UCLA next month.

“When we were growing up, the world seemed to be a very different place,” Eastwood said. “People didn’t seem so worried about personal dangers. But our generation has been very protective of our kids as they grew up in the world. And what I think this is helping us to do now is to keep our helicopters on the ground more often.”

Elizabeth Warren of Fremont said she appreciated advice about what one speaker described as “the difference between mothering and smothering, between fathering and bothering.”

“I don’t want to smother,” Warren said of her relationship with her son Jonathan, a UCLA freshman. “Yet you are a mom and you want to keep in touch. So this whole process puts it all in perspective and relieves a lot of the anxiety we feel as parents.”

At USC, the last of several recent orientation sessions was geared mainly toward parents of international students. The families peppered a panel of upperclassmen with questions about homesickness, safety, drunken parties, the wisdom of double majors and the drinkability of tap water in Los Angeles.

Pressed about campus cafeteria food, one young man reassured them: “I definitely miss my mom’s cooking, but I’ve never starved.”

Parents Terry and George Stockus of Victoria, Canada, said later that their concerns about crime were addressed in the session and said they also felt better prepared to part with their daughter, Sydney. “She’s happy, so we’re happy,” Terry Stockus said.

Yet when the moment arrived, it was still hard to leave. “We were all very good up until the room was put together and Dad figured out the printer,” Terry Stockus said. “When it was time to say goodbye, it was very emotional. But those were happy tears, excited tears.”