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Texting with my College Freshman: Responsive Parenting at its Best

My daughter is a college freshman. Before she gets out of bed in the morning, she texts me to ask what to wear that day, to share the latest exploits of “Trashcan Zack,” the worst human alive who lives down the hall, or to relive the high and low points of the preceding evening. I probably get between five and six dozen texts from her. Per day. Not quite as many from my son, a sophomore, but we still trade texts a few times each day and talk on the phone times a week.

So I talk to my kids a lot. Does this make me one of those wretched helicopter parents we all love to hate? Those hovering, micromanaging, overly involved parents who have difficulty separating from their kids and ruin their college experience?


The Difference Between Being Engaged and Being Overbearing

There’s a big difference between being an engaged and supportive parent, and one who wants to control every minute of their kid’s college years. For a homesick college freshman who doesn’t have anyone to eat lunch with, I am always available as a texting companion. I will tell you until you don’t need to hear it anymore that you will make friends. I’ll send you cookies, body wash, and beef jerky. I will listen while you rage against your awful Differential Equations teacher.

But that doesn’t mean I intend to sit in on job interviews with prospective employers, or email your academic counselor about next semester’s classes, or ask to meet with your professors.

People who wag their finger at any of the above would probably tell me I am stifling my kids’ independence, preventing them from the painful but necessary process of separation which will help them to develop the maturity and self-sufficiency of adulthood.

I would respond as follows: I will not Ferberize my college-age kid. Remember Dr. Ferber, the parenting expert who advocated letting your baby “cry it out” until they taught themselves how to sleep? We tried the Ferber method for about two hours before concluding that it was cruel and unnatural.

Any advice that tells an anxious mother not to soothe and comfort her child, but to accept their child’s misery as necessary is destructive, counterintuitive, and probably harmful to your child.

And you know what? Our kids figured out how to fall asleep themselves. I did not have to hold my teenagers until they fell asleep. Smug Ferber parents boasted of their babies sleeping through the night by six weeks, but I didn’t care. My kids felt secure, loved, and comforted, and that was totally worth a few years of lousy sleep. I see no reason to let my college kids ”cry it out” when they need soothing, either.

Being in close contact with a college-age kid isn’t the same as intervening or trying to solve their problems for them, anyway.

According to author Alfie Kohn, studies indicate that students who report having parents who are “actively connected and involved” report “higher levels of academic engagement and more frequent use of deep learning activities.” He cites a 2012 study of grown children which shows that “frequent parental involvement, including a wide range of support, was associated with better well-being for young adults.”

Good parenting isn’t about throwing a child in the pool and making them struggle because it’s good for them. Rather, it is responding to what a particular child needs at that given moment. Even if you’re the mother of a college freshman. Even if that child is an 18-year-old college student with college anxiety. When my daughter stops texting me 50 times a day, then I will know she no longer needs to.

Jane Parent, former editor at Your Teen, is the parent of three.

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