PARENTING A COLLEGE STUDENT

A Time of Transition for You, Too

By Bob Crow, dean of student development

This is a significant time in the life of your family. And while most of the attention is rightly directed toward your son or daughter and the transition that he or she will be making in coming to Calvin College, the primary purpose of this resource guide is to equip you with some tools that might come in handy as you adjust to this transition yourself.

Perhaps the most important fact for you to remember is that you are still the parent, and your daughter or son still needs you! Moreover, while we will care deeply for your child, in no way can Calvin College assume your role as parent. There is no way that we can.

Calvin College is a learning community that is not content to distance itself from students or to allow these young adults to flounder. These are our students. These are image bearers in God’s wonderful creation. And while they may be legally classified as adults, for traditional-aged students (18-24 years of age), we more often refer to them as emerging or novice adults. They are making the important transition from youthfulness into adulthood. And we believe they need to do this in a challenging yet supportive environment.

Colleges that do the best educating are those that have a healthy tension between challenging students and supporting students. At Calvin, we work deliberately to balance our support with appropriate challenge. At times this will mean an embrace; at other times it will mean a firm word. Your student can count on an environment of love, concern, support and counsel from faculty, staff and administrators who are seeking the very best for him or her. And finally, here is some quick wisdom in a nutshell for you to consider as you think of your son or daughter’s smooth transition into Calvin College:

C – Communicate regularly. As in every relationship, communication is key. And what we hear from students is that written communication is most valuable to them. Write a letter or e-mail them regularly with news from the home front.

A – Always pray. You have invested yourselves in the lives of your children. Never forget that your most important role now is to pray for them. And, I might add, please pray for us, asking that God would enable us to be faithful to Him in our work as members of this Christian institution of higher learning.

L – Listen. More than your advice, your son or daughter needs not only to have your ear when he or she talks with you but also to know that you hear what is being said (not what you want to hear). Ask open-ended questions and then provide the space for your son or daughter to respond…without interruptions, without your telling him or her exactly what to do.

V – Voice your support and encouragement. Instead of telling your son or daughter what to do, bite your lip, hold the majority of your opinions, and emphasize that you believe in him or her and are confident in his or her ability to make the right choices.

I – Inspire your son or daughter. Demonstrate interest in what he or she is learning. Be a role model, demonstrating that learning is a lifelong, joyful quest. Ask penetrating questions about what has most surprised them or what has most challenged them through their classes or co-curricular activities.

N – Never forget that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Remember when your children first learned to walk? They fell a few times, right? So, too, with their college experience; they will make some mistakes. Allow them the grace and the room to fall.

Common Questions for College Student Parents

Observations from the staff of the Broene Counseling Center

Can you believe it? Your son or daughter is a college student! You’ve gone through other milestones: the first steps, the first day of kindergarten, the first soccer game, the first date and so on. But this milestone—this thing called college—well, this is different. If you are like most parents, you are excited but apprehensive, proud but nervous. You may feel ready for this stage, but may also be sad about how fast the time has passed.

You’ve actually been going through the process of “letting go” for quite some time. You don’t kiss and bandage skinned knees anymore. You aren’t as much of a taxi driver as you were a couple of years ago. You don’t always know where your son or daughter is or what they are doing. Maybe you’ve noticed that your son or daughter doesn’t seem to need you as much when they are struggling.

And what now? How do you parent a college student? What does he or she need from you? What do you need? It is our belief that your parenting is definitely not over. It’s just changing. Your son or daughter still needs you, just in a different way. What follows are common questions parents have about this time of transition.

What is Josh likely to be thinking or feeling about coming to Calvin?

Josh is probably experiencing feelings that are similar to what you are experiencing. There is excitement about a new adventure. There may also be considerable apprehension about all the unknowns and new challenges that are before him—both academic challenges and social challenges. There may also be some normal sadness about separating from friends and family. It’s likely to be a real “mixed bag” for both Josh and you as parents. Be aware, however, that talking with Josh about these issues may not be that productive. Don’t expect Josh to verbalize many of his pre-college feelings. To be sure,he will have them, but getting him to talk about them will be something else.

Will Sarah change while at Calvin, and if so, how?

We hope and pray that Sarah indeed will change! For most Calvin students, college initiates a new “growth spurt” of sorts. Calvin is a dynamic and rich environment ripe with opportunities to meet interesting people and engage in new activities. Sarah will be challenged to take ownership of her faith, making it both personal and genuine. She will likely develop a clearer sense of who she is. She may very well develop a passion for a career and/or a major. Like most growth, however, it usually comes with some tension and struggle. College students are likely to struggle with many questions central to identity and purpose. These might include:

  • Who really am I? What do I really value?
  • Do I have my own Christian faith, or is it just the faith of my parents?
  • How is God calling me to serve Him?
  • Do my values and beliefs make sense?
  • What career fits me?

Although the separation between Sarah and people important to her is sometimes painful, it is only through this process that she can begin to know herself more clearly and establish her own sense of identity. These changes are slow, but it is truly gratifying for parents to witness over time their children forging their own way and becoming their own person.

How can I make sure Josh gets to class or goes to church?

Well, you really can’t. At this point, we parents rest on the assurance that despite our mistakes and imperfections, we’ve provided our children with the right foundation to do the right things based upon solid values. We also pray that God will guide, direct and sustain. Josh will be challenged by many choices while at Calvin. Do I go to class or just skip it? Can I afford to put off studying for my biology test and go out with my friends? What about that party I keep hearing about? How important is getting up Sunday morning to go to church? If Josh is like most students, he’ll rise to the occasion. He’ll learn how to manage his time. He’ll also grow in his own Christian faith and will critically examine the faith of his parents. While this may be anxiety-provoking for some parents, it is a necessary step for the cultivation of a personal and vibrant Christian life.

I’m aware that Calvin has a Dutch, Christian Reformed history, and I’m worried that Sarah won’t fit in at Calvin.

Sarah’s fitting in at Calvin will probably have more to do with how willing she is to make friends and get involved with college activities than anything else. Calvin’s cultural tradition is certainly present, and it has much to offer. However, Calvin is increasingly becoming more diverse. For example, more than half of our students do not come from Christian Reformed backgrounds. Students have told us that they felt more like they “fit” or belonged when they took action. Most start with their residence hall activities. Resident assistants (RAs) are a great resource to help students new to Calvin. Or, if Sarah resides off campus, she should get involved with the commuter student organization and spend time around the student development office, another great resource for students who live off campus.

How often should I visit, call, e-mail or text Josh?

There is really no standard rule for this. You might want to talk with Josh in advance about this and see if he has any sense of what he would like.
In general, call once a week during the first couple of weeks, less frequently later. If you live reasonably close, do not visit frequently and do not drop in unannounced. Our experience is that giving Josh space is important at this point, while also assuring him that you are still available. Use care packages to help him know you are thinking about him. Students love them. Be careful about e-mail and texting. Because they are so easy, they’re sometimes overused. Don’t be surprised or offended if Josh doesn’t respond to all of your writing or e-mails. He may need his distance.

When we call or e-mail Sarah, are there general tips about what should or should not be discussed?

Good question. It’s best to respect the process that Sarah is undergoing. She is slowly separating from you and becoming her own person. She is likely to feel somewhat nervous about that, but she also takes some pride in forging her own way. To that end, resist the time-honored parental urge to ask if she is getting enough rest. Don’t ask if she is eating properly. Don’t give advice unless she asks for it. Try to do more listening than talking. Tell Sarah about what has been going on with family members. Try not to inquire too much about grades. You will most likely be somewhat anxious about how Sarah will handle the academic demands, but appreciate the fact that she will most likely become quickly aware of what it takes to succeed academically at Calvin.

Is Josh likely to be homesick?

Maybe, maybe not. For all first-year students, the adjustment to college life is stressful. There are new people to meet, new routines to learn, new academic demands, new roommates and new pressures. It’s a real challenge! Thankfully, most new students get through it and begin to thrive in this community relatively quickly. If you hear from Josh and he sounds homesick, we’d suggest you simply listen. Resist the urge to label what he’s feeling as “homesickness.” Tell him that you understand that this adjustment is not easy. Promise to pray for him. Suggest he talk with an RA or a friend. Remind him again that you believe in him. Encourage him to take the initiative to seek out people and activities, even if he is not really feeling like it yet.

What if Sarah calls in a panic and sounds really upset?

Listen, and don’t allow yourself to panic. Adjusting to college life creates some level of self-doubt in just about all students. We in the counseling office hear students talk about whether they have what it takes socially or academically to make it at Calvin. New students are most likely to feel overwhelmed the first couple of weeks as they adjust and then again at the time of mid-term examinations in October. Mid-terms are anxiety-provoking for students because they’re not sure about how they will do. It resurrects or exacerbates the normal self-doubt or insecurity that is already present. Thankfully, this soon passes, and they do, too!

I keep reading articles about college life and how so many students are using alcohol or other drugs. This frightens me. Will Josh be exposed to this at Calvin? How can we minimize this in his life?

It is safe to say that no college campus is immune from some problems with alcohol. Calvin is no exception. Although our data suggest that Calvin students are significantly less likely to drink and use other drugs than students at other colleges and universities, it happens here, too. Josh will certainly hear about parties and may even be invited to some. He will hear about students’ drinking. Those temptations will be present, and he will be faced with choices. You won’t be able to monitor his behavior or make those choices for him. It’s time to rest in the assurance that you have imparted to Josh the kind of values that are best. You must trust his judgment and have faith that he will make the right decisions. Calvin does have clear policies regarding substance use and other dangerous behaviors, and we enforce those policies. When we become aware of an alcohol violation, for example, the discipline process affords another opportunity for growth for the student.

Sometimes Sarah seems so irresponsible. I’m afraid she’s not ready for college. How can I know that she’ll be OK?

It may comfort you to know that many parents have the same concern. They have seen their children fail to pick up after themselves, forget doctor’s appointments, arrive late for school or not turn in college forms on time. It’s natural to wonder (and fret!) whether your child will be ready to get up on time, hand in homework, get to class and budget their time. It should also be comforting to you that many parents see remarkable changes quite early in their children. It seems that most students “wake up” right away and realize that such responsibilities are up to them. It is likely that the same thing will happen for Sarah. When she is confronted by the reality that responsibility comes with freedom, she will probably step up to the plate and surprise you! This is all about growth and maturing!

What do I do if I have any other questions or concerns?

Contact us. Included in this Parent Resource Guide are the names and phone numbers of key offices that can assist you as we partner to make this an exhilarating educational experience for your son or daughter. In addition, you can always e-mail the parent relations office at parents@calvin.edu.