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Anna’s parents were anxious,  as they had not heard from her since her arrival in Maine. Then the following email arrived:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m sorry for not writing sooner. However, I want you to know my broken arm is healing well. I broke it when a fire swept through my dorm and I had to jump from the second floor window. Fortunately, there was lots of snow to break my fall. After regaining consciousness, no one was around and my cell phone was destroyed in the fire. So, I crawled to the 7-11 store across the street to call someone to take me to the hospital. A Hells Angel was there and he seemed pretty scary at first. However, Mad Dog (that’s his real name!!) was really nice and took me to the Emergency Room.

He stayed with me throughout my ordeal and kept checking on me even after I moved back to campus. We started dating and fell madly in love.  So, I quit school to move in with him at the biker’s shack, but don’t worry, we plan to get married before the baby is born.

Your Loving Daughter,


Despite the shock, they continued reading.

P.S. Just kidding!!

I didn’t break my arm, there was no fire, and I wasn’t hospitalized. I’m still living in the dorm, not dating anyone, and certainly am not pregnant. I did, however, get a “D” in Freshman English. I hope the first part of this email helps you keep that in perspective.

In the early 1980s, I developed one of the nations’ first welcome and orientation programs for the parents and families of new college students. The expression “helicopter parents” had not yet been popularized in the media. David Strauss, Dean of Students at Wayne State University, says the term “helicopter parents” criticizes and disrespects the role parents have in raising their children. 

Modern U.S. culture places extraordinary pressure on parents to invest countless hours and dollars in raising their children. Then, when those sons and daughters enroll in colleges that can cost families as much as $200,000, many campuses tell parents to “trust us,” or get lost!  

Today, most educators understand that parental concern doesn’t end at the campus entry gate. As a character in the classic film, “Parenthood,” says, “Being a parent is forever.”  Dr. Helen Smith observes, “Some boomer parents hang on, propelled by love (of course) and insecurity about how the world will treat their children.” Research also finds that parental support leads to successful students.

Forty percent of students are the first in their families to attend college, many admitting that their parents are why they enrolled in college. Facilitating parent involvement can help maintain the familial ties that are so important to first generation students. Forging relationships with parents also encourages students to seek help when difficulties arise, a key factor in academic success.

Newsweek columnists Barbara Kantrowitz and Peg Tyre, citing the findings of a study conducted by Barbara Hofer, a Middlebury College psychologist, wrote that today’s students consider their parents to be their best friends. Hofer said first-year students reported an average of 10.41 communications per week with their parents.

Parents want to be heard. They are relieved to know that the campus cares about their concerns. Caring colleges value the incredible sacrifices today’s families make. They want to engage parents in supporting students to move into the critical first-year of college effectively. However, effective programs also teach parents how to step aside and let go.

Dr. Smith notes that “over-parenting” can extend adolescence to the age of 30-35, with parents complaining when James or Chelsea moves home because they never learned self-reliance. Smith offers that a self-sufficient son with no college education is preferable to one who graduated Harvard only to use her as a life long crutch.

So, what should his parents do?

Former Grinnell dean Michael Langerud suggests three questions parents can ask their children:

1. What is the best thing I can say to motivate you?

2. What is the best thing I can say to give you feedback when I disagree with a decision or action?

3. What is the best thing I can say to recognize you when you do well?

I closed my orientation sessions with parents by sharing that students’ greatest fear often was that they would let their families down. Parents should tell their children how much they love them, how proud they are, and then let them go into the world.

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to:


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