Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sending your kid away to college

College-bound teen Shannon Murray — by her mother’s estimation — is “bubbly, trusting, outgoing and befriends absolutely everyone.” As the San Diego high schooler prepared to head off for her freshman year at Arizona State University, her mom, Ann, sat her down for a heart-to-heart.

The topic? The things a college coed never does at a frat party. Rule No. 1: Don’t let friends leave without you.

To make sure the rules stuck, Ann Murray gave her daughter pop quizzes to earn little rewards. “We’d be driving around and I’d say, ‘OK, for a Starbucks latte, what are the five things?’”

Ah, it’s off-to-college time, when parents grapple with a crazy-making mixture of anxiety, fear and excitement. It can all seem overwhelming. Will my son get along with his roommate? Can my daughter still take the placement test she missed? Will my child make new friends?

In the months and weeks leading up to the start of school — when filing deadlines loom and forms pile up on the kitchen table like unpaid bills — moms and dads are often frustrated that “their child is not getting organized,” said Christine Schelhas-Miller, co-author of “Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to College Years” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

“The admissions process is over and the child is breathing a sigh of relief. They’re hanging out with their high school friends, acting as though they don’t have a care in the world,” Schelhas-Miller said. Parents can be tempted to micromanage. But it’s a bad idea. Schelhas-Miller said parents should instead be transitioning from the role of “supervisor” to that of their child’s “consultant.”

“It’s passing the baton,” added Karen Levin Coburn, author of “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years” (HarperCollins, 2009). Children need to be “responsible for their own education. It’s [the] simple things — ‘You’re supposed to fill out your housing form. I’m not going to fill it out for you.’”

Thanks to the Internet, parents have more opportunities to connect with other parents. Many colleges even sponsor online parents’ networks. Suzy Keleher of Garden Grove used Humboldt State’s parents’ network to look for carpooling opportunities to get daughter Kira (and her rather large harp) up to the campus in Arcata.

Colleges also communicate with parents via email. Such online tools “help parents navigate the university from a distance,” said Jennifer Hightower, associate vice president of student services at Arizona State University.

Of course, face-to-face communication is always best. Larry Cohn of Orange, father of Arizona State senior Ben, rounded up a dozen or so fellow ASU parents from Southern California for a pizza one night. “We all had a great time and talked about our experiences. If somebody had a problem, somebody else would come up with a solution,” Cohn said.

Money is also a major stress factor, especially in today’s gloomy economic climate. Parents should realize that college-bound seniors are young adults capable of facing harsh economic realities, experts say, so it’s important to talk openly and honestly about family finances. Coburn suggests being direct, telling kids: “This is what we can afford to pay, how much we can borrow and how much you will have to earn in the summer or at a work-study job.”

Each family has to work out the credit-card question in its own way. But it’s generally a bad idea to hand out plastic with no set limits, Schelhas-Miller noted. A better idea might be a debit card with a certain amount deposited each month, or a credit card that is only for academic expenses, not “pizza on Saturday night,” she added. “It’s a matter of spelling out expectations.”

No matter how much parents gird themselves, it can be emotionally wrenching to send a child away to college. When Keleher dropped off Kira — her youngest of three — at Humboldt State for the first time, she held back the tears because “I wanted her to see me with a smiling face. But once I got out of there, I was wailing.”

It helps if parents realize that they’re not letting go. “They’re just moving to the sidelines and watching a little from afar,” said Penny Rue, vice chancellor of student affairs at UC San Diego. The good news is that research shows that most UCSD students are in daily or weekly contact with their parents, she added.

Connie Cirimeli of Walnut Creek and daughter Micaela, who will be a freshman at UC Davis this fall, are the kind of mother and teen who like to share details of each other’s day.

To keep the communication lines open when Micaela is away at school, the pair has penciled in Skype dates each Sunday at 6 p.m. — a sort of virtual family dinner.

Keeping in close contact is always a good idea, but knowing how to effectively communicate is the key. “The biggest mistake is when parents tell their college student what to do rather than listen and then help figure out how to solve the problem,” Schelhas-Miller said. “Do [the students] need more information? How can they get that? What resources are there on campus? Can they go to an advisor?

“Another issue is kids will often call their parents and do what we call the ‘stress dump’ to unload their frustrations,” Schelhas-Miller added. “They’re upset about things. But parents should not instantly call the school and try to solve the problem. They should be helping the kid figure out how to solve the problem.”

Figuring out what to pack for a dorm or apartment can be a headache. Taking too much is a common mistake. At San Francisco State, students “are coming with Costco-size packages of things. One year we collected 54 boxes of unused Swiffer refills,” said Jim Bolinger, SFSU’s director of school property management.

Before making that trip to the big-box store for school supplies, wait until your child is assigned a roommate, then have the pair decide who brings what.

“You don’t need to bring two televisions and stereos,” Rue said. San Francisco State encourages students to pack sustainable items like reusable water bottles and plastic storage containers instead of cardboard boxes. Or a personal coffee mug that can be refilled for a discount at the campus’ java joint.

And as for Ann Murray’s frat party rules: Shannon got her latte after passing her pop quiz with flying colors.

“It’s like you do your best to give your kid swimming lessons,” Murray said. “But at some point you have to throw them in the water and see if they can swim.”