Every day, it seems, another college abandons in-person plans in favor of conducting the fall semester online. Along with the crushing disappointment, first-year students now have to navigate the transition to college without the accompanying freedom of leaving home. And parents may face behaviors and habits — sleeping until noon, skipping class — they wouldn’t see if the student were away at school.
“Let’s be real about this — it is not going to be easy for either side,” said Claudia W. Allen, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Family Stress Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. She recommended families not drift into thinking college from home will be an extension of high school or the summer routine, “because that will not go well.”
Here’s what to do instead.
Lay out expectations
It may help for parents to think of themselves as a dorm’s resident advisers, clearly articulating their expectations of students, said Jennifer Keup, the director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. This includes values like respect — and more important, what that might look like in practice, including curfews, cleanliness of common spaces and (brace yourself) whether overnight guests are acceptable. If talking this out sounds like one pandemic burden too many, take heart: “This is really just work that the parent and young adult would have to do next summer when the kid came home anyway,” Allen said.
Younger siblings should also be included in a family meeting. Dylan Schneider, 18, who will be attending Georgetown University from his Upper East Side bedroom in the fall, is planning to talk to his 15-year-old sister about the volume of her music and TV before the semester starts.
During the spring lockdown, “it was hard to focus on work, and that was just in high school,” Schneider said. “So I’m nervous about that.” (Keup suggested searching for “sibling contracts” as a starting point.)
College kids should be allowed to keep their own schedule as much as possible — noon wake-ups and all — unless for some reason it absolutely does not work for the household, Allen said. They should also be responsible for the cleanliness of their own spaces. Keup, the mother of a rising college sophomore, said she avoids looking in her son’s room, and if she catches a glimpse, “I try not to think about it,” she said.
If parents are being a little too controlling, Allen suggested the children push back with something like, “Even though COVID means I’m stuck at home, it is important to me to be making my own choices and experimenting a little so I can be the independent adult that you want me to be.”
Set up ‘college’ in the dining room
Create a dedicated “college” area, not in the student’s bedroom, if you have the space. “Sequestering yourself in your room for all your classes, study and relaxation can set students up for isolation and depression,” said Jennifer Bell, who has worked in student affairs for two universities.
When her two college-age children came home in March, Bell, who lives in Holly Springs, North Carolina, handed over her dining room. She repurposed a birthday banner, writing “COLLEGE” on the back, and put up printouts of her kids’ schools’ mascots. “It was just to be sympathetic and kind of silly,” she said.
Pro tip: If your kids’ “college” space is in a common area in the house, buy a whiteboard or calendar for them to note tests and other times the rest of the family may need to be quiet. “They told us, and we’d try to remember, but we should have written it down,” Bell said.
If you don’t have extra space, consider rearranging or redecorating the student’s room or a portion of the room — “simple things like the new comforter set or a little refrigerator to make it feel like their room is becoming a dorm room,” said Christina Loring, the director of Parent and Family Programs at Boston University. She also suggested celebrating the milestone. “Buy that sweatshirt and that bumper sticker,” she said.
Mimic the away-at-school experience
Try to give your children at least some of the independence they would have had if they’d gone away. Cathy Jellenik, an associate professor of French at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, is giving over her guest bedroom — which has a kitchenette and a separate entrance — to her son Nathaniel, 18, who will start his first year at Hendrix from home.
She and her husband would have paid for his food if he’d moved to campus, she said, so they are giving him a stipend and leaving him in charge of his own grocery deliveries — as well as doing his own laundry at the laundromat down the street. And although Jellenik said she would be thrilled to see her son for dinner every night, in keeping with the “he’s away at college” mindset, he has to call or text first and knock before he comes in the house.
“He said, ‘Eww, what are you and Dad going to be doing?’ ” Jellenik said. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe we’re going to be having a candlelit dinner.’ ” Her son wanted to set up in his new space immediately, but Jellenik tried to preserve what few first-year rituals she could. He moved in on what would have been Hendrix’s move-in day.
If your student is joining you for dinner every night — which may make the most sense, financially — it isn’t license to grill your son or daughter about friends and classes all the time. Consider how many times a week you might talk or text with your student on the phone from campus, Allen said, and then act accordingly. If it is once a week, say, deem Thursday dinner as check-in night. “That’s when parents can ask their young adult what they’re reading in English literature, and the young adults can throw them some crumbs,” Allen said.
It is likely you will know if your child is sleeping through class or turning in papers late, but before you step in, pause and ask yourself whether this is information you would have if your student were in the dorms. If it isn’t, back off unless it threatens their health or safety. Marjorie Savage, author of “You’re on Your Own (but I’m Here if You Need Me),” a book on parenting college students, said, “They’re supposed to be developing responsibility and managing their own time. They need to be left to deal with the consequences of their actions.”
If your student wants your help with schoolwork, such as an essay, first point toward relevant campus resources, many of which are now online. “You can say, ‘I’d love to, but I think you have somebody better equipped to do that in the writing center, and this is a good opportunity for you to connect with them,’ ” Keup said. This may actually help ensure students’ long-term college success: Research suggests that the building of connections and community — academic community, not just friends — in the first year is essential to finishing a degree.
Set a two-week check-in
After two weeks, plan to assess what’s working and what isn’t. One parent Allen knows learned that her college-age son hated when she would immediately ask him about his day when he walked into the kitchen in the afternoon. (He was tired and wanted some downtime.)
To prep for the meeting, Allen suggested each person come up with one appreciation and one thing he or she would like to request be done differently. A student might say to a parent, for example, “I appreciate that you guys haven’t grilled me too much about my classes, and I’d love it if you didn’t knock on my door before noon on weekends unless it is an emergency.”
Allen said, “What’s really hard about this whole experience is going to be that it is like watching the sausage being made. Keep it light, expect there to be some bumps in the road, and just course-correct as you go.”