We signed up to work with students. At least, the majority of us did. Why, then, are we haunted by the lurking voicemails of parents? Many of them are miles away from our buildings. Some are as close as a hop onto the highway. All of them just want the best for their child. Well, their student. You know, the traditionally aged college students they dropped off under the implication that they trust us to help mold them into successful and autonomous adults.
The 2023 Move-In Week was a whirlwind for me. Like many professionals, I dealt with far more parents and families while performing my occupational move-in duties than I did students. From furniture demands to flooding toilets and questions about who could possibly be responsible for cleaning the private bathroom, the encounters ranged from unreasonable and ridiculous to genuinely valid concerns. I handled them all as graciously as I could.
The week was frustrating, no doubt. But I learned a lot about the parents of our residents; I studied them through both interaction and through people-watching. What I took away was that move-in was also a whirlwind for every student and parent, each household member kissing each other goodbye for what felt like the first time. College isn’t summer camp, after all. There is a lot for parents and families to be anxious about. Unlike in summer camp, there’s now access to copious amounts of alcohol, possibly drugs, and worse, the opposite sex without supervision! The concern is perfectly normal. Yet, all ResLife professionals rejoiced that parents were not their problem to deal with.
After my experience, I argue that this might not be the case.
Why We Should Help
My father drove me to my undergraduate orientation back in 2018. At first, we navigated the day together. But at some point, we were separated. I went off with my student group to participate silly little icebreakers while my father handled who knows what kind of business. Upon reuniting, I was inevitably made to sign over my FERPA rights, as one should expect the only child of two invested parents to do. But besides the digital paperwork, I was curious about what the parents had been up to all that time we had been apart. So, I decided to ask my dad.
“They told us we should leave you guys alone.”
It wasn’t an answer that I was expecting, but it was an answer that made me giggle. Let me clarify. The university officials did not instruct parents and families to abandon their college students. Not by any means. But instead, they were encouraged to allow their students to learn. To explore new possibilities, encounter new problems, and come to families with their issues as they saw fit. They were told to be open-minded and understanding. You know, to have boundaries.
Three years down the line, when I took up the role of an orientation leader, I discovered that the separation of student and family on the orientation date was by design. It was intentional of them to uproot us all from our comfort zones. The professionals wanted us students to start our journeys, meet new people, and ask our own questions free of judgment. For parents, they intentionally included a conversation dedicated to calming their obvious nerves and discomfort.
One part of my job as an orientation leader that I loved was the opportunity to speak in front of parents. I mean, hundreds of them. Just a room full of worried parents. And I decided that I wanted to tell every ballroom full of parents the story of my own father during orientation. Each time, I set up the same joke. I told them about the paperwork and about my curiosity around what went on in these sessions that I was now a designated host of. I would finish the beginning of my speech with my dad’s answer. “They told us we should leave you guys alone.”
Every time I told the joke, the crowd responded with a guffaw of laughter. All summer. It made me happy to ease the tension between myself and the crowd. But I also noticed something else about these moments. Behind those initially worried eyes, I read relief. Someone saw them. Someone understood their concerns. Just a few years back, someone else had been in their place, and their child had survived. Better yet, I was thriving; I was in front of a crowd doing something I never would have felt comfortable enough to do all that time ago.
There was hope.
I get it. We still signed up to help students, not parents. However, to ignore the helicopter parent dilemma is to also overlook an important aspect of student development.
A good portion of our students are traditionally aged college students (aged 18-22). Even those outside of said range may still fall within the developmental stage of Emerging Adulthood. The developmental tasks of this age range will sound familiar; they align with many of our goals as professionals as well as our desired outcomes for our residents. For example, you can surely identify the connection between our work and the developmental tasks of becoming a part of a community or establishing residence and maintaining a household. What about the development of autonomy?
It may seem counterproductive to speak about working with parents and helping students develop autonomy at the same time. Except the two actually go hand in hand. The reality is that a part of our role is also to assist our residents in developing that sense of autonomy. Doing so requires working on the existing relationship students hold with parents and families.
At this point, any confusion around what we as professionals are meant to do about personal relationships is warranted. We can encourage students to make their own decisions, design workshops around useful related skills such as boundary setting or emotional regulation, and continue to do our jobs as regularly scheduled. But what about the people on the other end? What about the actual parents and families? Navigating parental and familial relationships can be a minefield. In my opinion, the solution to this problem is simply to brush up on your compassion and keep in mind the reason for said difficulties and concerns.
What to Keep in Mind
- They’re Afraid: This is the most simplistic answer. Families are letting go of someone they’ve most likely been attached at the hip with for 18+ years. Such an experience can be inevitably difficult, not just for the residents who we support, but for parents and families as well.
- The Climate Has Shifted: Many parents attended university themselves. Back in their day, the campus climate, specifically residential living, was totally different. Co-ed living spaces were hardly common, and in some cases, strict curfew and visitation rules were enforced. While some universities, particularly those with religious or cultural foundings, stick with many of these rules, many institutions have since shifted away from this hyper-controlled environment. This can lead to culture shock for some parents, who expected a bit more of what they had previously become accustomed to in their college days.
- The Consumer Mindset is Inevitable: The cost of a college education continues to increase. Despite the advancement of technology and an obvious societal shift that raises questions as to whether or not pursuing said education is worth it, parents, families and students continue to shell out money in hopes of attaining their end goals. While student affairs professionals are constantly examining the additional ways that we can enhance the overarching development of our students, parents and families often limit the scope of what they are paying for to education and academic initiatives. That said, they are paying an awful lot. The entitlement will arise, but in many cases can be placated with the right amount of empathy.
- There is Cultural Nuance: Family is generally important to everyone. However, it is equally as important to remember that there is cultural nuance to family dynamics. In some cultures, more involvement than you might expect is normalized. There are cultures that focus more on the collective in comparison to a somewhat Western perspective which aims for individualism. That said, the ideals and expectations we hold do not always align with every student’s reality or cultural practices.
- Parents & Families are Important: The connections that our residents have with their loved ones are vital to their success. We support them, but support from home when available is just as valuable. In addition, many students’ education is fully funded by the family. While residence education may not be the front line for connecting with parents, it is an important facet of connecting with students and shaping the student experience. At my previous institution, New Student Orientation was renamed New Student, Parent & Family Connections. I’m sure that the shift was purposeful.
Like much of what we do in our field, dealing with parents is not easy. Compassion burnout is a real and valid experience. I encountered it myself in this past move-in. While doing this work, we still have to take care of ourselves and enforce our own boundaries. With time to reflect on some of the harshest encounters of my career thus far, I found a learning opportunity. I made connections between my past and the present, bringing my knowledge and experience to the forefront for guidance.
Move-in may be long behind us now, but I challenge you to embrace the chaos of the future. I encourage you to lead with kindness and approach every situation with an open mind. Before you judge the next parental voicemail rant, I hope that you consider my story. I hope that you consider culture, consider anxiety, and even consider privilege. Consider what is on the line for both the students and the parents that we serve.