Harlan Cohen has seen it all, even the mom who moved in with her daughter at university. Mr. Cohen, mind you, has spent the past 17 years dispensing advice to readers in his syndicated column, “Help Me, Harlan!” and books, including the Naked Roommate series. In For Parents Only, A Parents Guide to the New College Experience, his second book in the series, he guides parents on everything from the appropriate way to use Facebook to keep up with your child’s life, to dealing with the big moves, finances and roommates.
It’s also not okay to move into your child’s dorm.
“This generation of parents are making more mistakes than ever before,” says Mr. Cohen of Chicago, who has visited more than 400 university and college campuses. “It’s everyone’s first time, and the challenges parents are facing are a little different. When parents went to school, they would rarely talk to their parents because of technology.
Students from across Canada were asked by The Globe and Mail to submit stories about their own university experiences, specifically their biggest peeves when it came to dealing with their parents. Mr. Cohen tackles them below.
I found my parents’ lack of interest in my undergraduate journey difficult. My parents sometimes didn't have the time or perhaps background knowledge to help me make what seemed like critical decisions.
Sometimes it’s intentional – they don’t want to direct their kids to a particular passion because that’s the child’s responsibility. But here’s the deal: There’s nothing wrong with this. Parents don’t know and it’s not their responsibility to know.
This time of your life is about finding people on campus. Every student needs at least five people in their corner, people who can guide them and direct them and support them when it comes to life decisions. If your parents don’t have the information, turn to the people who do. If you have a specific question, sure, bounce it off you parents, and if they don’t have an answer, bounce it off people in your corner.
My parents took an extreme hands-off approach that forced me to fend for myself. Months would go by when I didn’t hear from them. I didn't mind, but it was curious that they didn’t check up more often.
Months going by, you don’t get a text, you don’t get an e-mail, you don’t see a Facebook update, you don’t see a tweet? If you’re not hearing anything from your parents in months, I would call 911. That’s beyond hands-off. That’s almost like I’ve disowned you.
Here’s what it is, though: Some parents will wait for a kid to call. They don’t want to crowd their child. For the parent, I always tell them to ask the question, ‘How often would you like to talk?’
Sometimes parents will dispense advice and guidance without asking permission. And it’s the idea of asking, ‘Hey, do you want me to offer you advice, or do you want me to just listen?’ It’s giving the child the option to be hands-on or hands-off. This idea of a parent asking a child a question is so empowering – it acknowledges that they have a choice, and in the past they really didn’t have an option.
I think the huge trend is that so many teenagers today are so risk-averse. But it’s the student who’s given space and time to explore things, that is a student who is going to be able to discover their passions.
The most annoying thing my parents do while I'm at school are daily phone calls. I don't mind a quick text conversation, but having your parents calling you to ask what is new since the previous day…?
Parents need to set their own boundaries, and for some parents whose lives revolve around their kids, they find themselves with not a lot to do when their kids go away. Parents need to have things to do, places to go and people to hang out with or they’re going to be too all over their kid. They should be too busy to call every day.
They should also be asking their kids, ‘How frequently do you want me to call?’ It’s hard for the kid to explore when they’re always getting a call. Some parents are ‘gotcha’ parents trying to catch their kids and trying to protect their kids. Calling every day doesn’t show you trust that your child can be independent.
The thing that irritates me the most is when my parents ask me about what I'm learning in my courses. It inevitably leads to the parent not understanding a thing, or, more often, being visibly bored.
Why are parents asking the questions? If it’s the case that they are checking up to see if the student is struggling, I think that’s out of bounds. Moms and dads shouldn’t be looking at a transcript or checking up to see if they didn’t do their homework – that’s the kid’s responsibility at that point. But if a parent is genuinely interested because he or she finds what their student is learning is of interest, that’s different.
My parents always wanted me to fly home on every holiday, when all I wanted to do was relax and spend time with my friends. They made sure to always give me a guilt trip.
I think there needs to be a compromise, rather than assuming and demanding. It’s about asking and if they don’t want to do something then it’s usually a sign they’re pretty involved and have a pretty active life.
Parents: You can always visit them or they can visit for a shorter time, but I think it’s about allowing them freedom to not always do what you want them to. A lot of parents will schedule time and they don’t recognize that kids want to do nothing and want to hang out with friends. So it’s talking about expectations.
This interview has been condensed and edited.