Sending Our Kids to College and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Since my last few weeks have been spent listening, sympathizing, educating, and mostly reassuring parents whose first (or second or third) child has left for college, this column is for them. On a personal note, I’m closer to this period of life than that of sending my kids to preschool, but there are two other reasons I’d like to look at this particular transition. The first is that in looking at a more mature period of separation, we can glean some insight about how to best handle earlier separations (whether that’s kindergarten, summer camp, or high school). And the other is that the amount of information about how to handle your kid’s college transition is stunningly contradictory. Colleges have instituted programs for parents about how to “let go” — don’t call too often, develop your own interests, don’t linger in the dorm, and don’t get too emotional. It’s never clear to me whether this means don’t tear up (unavoidable) or don’t have campus security come pry your fingers from your death grip on your child (over the top — not to mention an embarrassing introduction to his or her roommate). These programs typically pull out studies showing that parents who are “overinvolved” inhibit the development of independence and autonomy in their college students.

Alternately, there is another body of data that suggests that maintaining close contact with your newly minted college student is salutary. That the closer relationship between children (even young adult children) and parents helps ease transitions, encourages risk taking, and makes developing friendships easier. At a challenging and confusing period of life for both parents and college-bound students, there’s nothing more disheartening than having “experts” add to the confusion. So let’s see if we can straighten some of this out.

But first I want to give an example of how these competing ideas play out in real life. In the crazy, coincidental way that things work, as I sat down to write this piece, my youngest son, who is in law school, calls me. He has forgotten to sign up for a course he needs; he’s upset and uncertain how to proceed. This is a “put your money where your mouth is” moment for me. He is a great kid, works hard, has been quite independent throughout school, and this is his first snafu. I know I’m not going to fix it for him, but I also know that I’m going to help him. I re-read a couple of my own book chapters. After all this time, I’m surprisingly conflicted. I could smooth his path in a heartbeat. I know this would be a mistake.

The pull to bind our children closely and to fix things for them is great and probably rooted in our DNA. After all, out on the savannah, if you couldn’t keep track of your offspring, your offspring were likely to perish. So we need to be gentle with ourselves when our first impulse is to intervene. The reality is that much of the problem solving that is new to our kids, is familiar to us. I know what to do when I’ve missed a deadline. But the point is that my son doesn’t, and if I don’t help him learn how to problem solve then several things happen. First, he doesn’t learn how to depend on himself to navigate the world — he’s missed an opportunity to cultivate competence and it’s cousin, confidence. Second I’ve encouraged his dependence, not independence. Since my goal as a mom has been to raise a kind, loving, and self-sufficient kid, I am getting in the way of my own goals as well as his mental health.

The only reason to give him the answer (full disclosure: I definitely consider this) is because it keeps me in the old role of “mother knows best” and reminds me of a time when I could ease almost all of my children’s distress. I realize what a dynamic process it is to be a parent, and how we evolve just as our children do. At this stage in life, both for myself and for my son, being a good mother means giving enough direction and encouragement so that he not only can, but also wants to figure out problems on his own. I empathize with his confusion.

When in doubt, empathy is always a good starting point:  it reinforces connection, which helps clear away cobwebs and allows us to think more clearly. I stay away from being critical (“How could you miss the deadline? What were you thinking?”) because criticism ruptures connection, adds a layer of anxiety, and impairs thinking. Mostly I listen and brainstorm a bit with my son. He ends up with two or three possible courses of action, says he’ll think about which he’ll pursue, sounds relieved, and is off the phone before I have a chance to mess up my pretty good response with clucking concern or additional, unnecessary questions. I know that one of the solutions he’s come up with is likely to be more successful than the others, but through trial and error, he will figure that out himself. Besides, he’s a very different person than I am, and what works best for me might not work best for him.

So according to research, did I handle this well or not so well? Depends. I didn’t “fix” it for him, so points for not being overinvolved. But do I need to subtract points for not being adequately supportive? Is he less likely to make friends as a result? So here’s the issue with depending on research, which by the way, is often contradictory. Research is good for general guidelines, but far less so for specifics. Research deals with large numbers of kids, but not with yours specifically, or your unique family.

Almost all of the research on parental involvement as children transition to college depends on how you define “over-involvement.” A typical study ends with a cautionary statement like this one:

The findings of this study indicated that there are a variety of factors related to parental involvement that can influence a student’s transition from high school to college. Overall, the results supported prior research that indicated that some parental involvement could be beneficial to student success, while parental over-involvement can stifle the development of basic skills and hinder the student’s ability to make decisions (Shellenbarger, 2005).

Translation: The relationship between you and your new college student is a Goldilocks dilemma. Not too hot (over-involved). Not too cold (suddenly unavailable). But just right. Just right, of course, depends on your particular child. What is over-involvement for one child is necessary for another. No one knows your child as well as you do. Give your student space, encourage problem solving, don’t micromanage, but do let him or her know that you’re available. Call, but not daily. Let your child initiate contact. Don’t fix things, but lend your experience and wisdom when it’s asked for (and occasionally when it’s not). Be sensible. And most of all, listen.

Because we signed on as parents for life, continuing to help our kids as they grow up remains part of our job. Learning to redefine “help” and cultivating the skills needed for this new definition takes some adjustment. We once gave up sleep, showers, sex, interesting vacations, good clothes, and hot cars in the best interest of our children. Certainly we can learn to stay available even as we hang back, intervene less and listen more, so that our children have the opportunity to develop the skills that they will need to manage the autonomous, productive, fulfilling, and truly successful lives that they are meant to grow towards. Stay available. And don’t get in their way.

Madeline Levine, PhD

Madeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.