An Open Letter To The Parents Of College Students: 8 Things They Want You To Know
Dear Parents, Grandparents, Guardians, Mentors, Other Relatives and Significant others who have contributed to raising human beings,
First and foremost, I must share with you that I have not had any children of my own at the time of this letter. While you might be tempted to close this window and not listen to anything else that I have to share beyond this statement, I am nearly begging you to enter, and stay in this conversation with me.
This is an urgent matter.
Although I have not yet had children, I work with students often, and am able to listen to the things they might not feel comfortable sharing with you.
That disconnect is one of the reasons that I am writing this letter.
From my work in orientations, to my time as a resident assistant in campus life, as a supportive staff in student affairs, and as a professor in the classroom, I’ve seen some steady patterns in the lives of some over the years, and this letter is an attempt to bring some things to your attention.
So your “child” has entered college. Take a moment to honor this time in life. Take a pause to honor them, and take some time to honor yourselves. You, along with others have contributed to shaping who they have become so far.
Although they’re just getting started, they’ll need your help to finish. I know that you are vested in their happiness and success, so I would like to share some things with you from a place of love and sincerity in hopes that you receive what I have to say.
Here are 8 things that students would like you to know:
They’re adults now—and need to be given the space to make their own decisions; including their own mistakes. Coming to college can be a liberating experience for students because in many ways, what happens in and outside of the classroom provides them with opportunities to more deeply discover who they are, and what they value.
That growth process is hindered by what has come to be known as helicopter parenting, and there is a growing body of research that speaks to how students who have consistently had things done for them before entering college can experience a great deal of anxiety when it comes to critical thinking, prioritizing, and problem solving.
While trying to “fix” things might seem helpful in the moment, collective patterns of those moments are not helpful in the long run, and rob students of their opportunity to stumble, and sometimes, to fail.
Child no more. They’re adults now.
They want you to be proud of them—Your approval means so much more than you know. As they have new experiences, their values and beliefs might change, and may begin to look differently than the ones you may have taught them to believe.
Depending on what and how you have taught them to think about themselves, and people who are different from them in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, and other aspects of identity, and based on their interpretations of how you respond to difference in conversation or through your actions, they may decide to keep these changes hidden from you.
Maybe you’ll eventually find out, maybe you won’t. How long it might take, if it happens at all, will depend largely on their development as a person, but will also be influenced by your personal development, openness, or lack thereof.
They want you to be proud of them, and how you respond can play a huge role in whether they believe that they can have an authentic relationship with you, or if they feel as if they need to pretend to be another person whenever they come home to visit.
As hard as this may sound, they really want you to ask yourself:
“Is my love really unconditional?”–Would you embrace your student in love if they came out to you? Would you still accept them if they chose not to follow the faith you follow, or begin practicing a faith if you have raised them not to? Would you love them if they began an interracial relationship, or wanted to live with their partner?
What are some scenarios that might be difficult for you to understand or accept? How deep is your love? While some may be offended at the question, you will encounter situations that force you to put it to the test; for some, like never before.
For every person who would scoff at some of these questions, there are students even today who have been rejected, cut off, and cast out physically, emotionally, and financially by their families, which leads me to my next point:
It hurts when you use support as leverage—I can’t tell you how many students I’ve worked with over the years who arrive at a realization that they have been living out a path that has been pre-determined for them, instead of a path that they would actually choose for themselves.
I can’t tell you how many times a student has wanted to change their major or discipline because they came to the conclusion that being a doctor or a lawyer (or whatever) wasn’t for them anymore. I can’t tell you how many times they are met with bashing, contempt, and threats that their support will cease after revealing their decision to choose a path that they were more passionate about to the ones they love.
“My (insert yourself here) is helping me out with school, and said if I want that help to continue I have to do what they want me to do.”
And it’s not limited to financial support. Emotional support can be leveraged as well.
“What do you mean you’re not gonna be a ___ anymore!? That’s not what we’ve been pushing so hard for all this time. You’re breaking my heart. I can’t accept this. I won’t accept this.”
Just so you know, this puts a huge strain on your students emotionally as well as financially. It really messes with their mental health. (See my second point) Stressing about how you feel, and about how disappointed or hurt you are or might be can impact their performance socially, academically, and in other areas as they still have to balance their current responsibilities while calculating how heavy the fallout from you might be.
As hard as this may sound, they really want you to ask yourself:
“What are my hopes, goals and dreams?—and to what level have I obtained them?” Is your student’s decision to change directions really not what “we”have been pushing so hard for all this time”, or is it actually not what you have been pushing so hard for all this time?
Have you really talked up your student’s path to other family and friends, perhaps even people at work? That sounds like community buy-in.
That type of support can be really wonderful if it’s what your student wants, but if it’s not, all that talk, and the expectation that has built up behind it can place an intense amount of pressure on your student to continue out of obligation, and I honestly believe that you wouldn’t want that if you really knew how this impacts students.
If you’re finding that you might be more passionate than your student is, it may be a sign that it’s time to let it go. It may be a sign to close the door on what was, and open yourself to what will be.
They love you very much—Perhaps you’re already aware of this, but it really is true, even though they may not share it openly as much as you (or they) might like. This is another reason why your unconditional support is critical to their success.
This letter is not exhaustive, and these patterns can happen among and between undergraduate and graduate students and their families, so the work is ongoing.
Please know that I share these things with the utmost respect and care.
I write this in hopes of it being used as a conversation starter for movement towards more authentic relationships between students and their families.
Please think it over, and share it with others so more people can join in.
Ask the questions to yourself, and your student, and be open to really receiving what it is they have to say.
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW