Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Author encourages parents to act as consultants, not managers during the college years

A family is like a delicate mobile, says parenting expert Helen Johnson.

When a piece is removed — as when a child goes away to college — the whole mobile bobs and sways until a new balance is achieved. Parents need to be sensitive to these changes in the family dynamic and be kind to themselves as they make the transition to a different stage of life, she says.

Johnson spoke to a large group of incoming DU parents on Sept. 7 as part of the 2010 Parent and Family Orientation. She is the author of Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money:  The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years and has worked for more than 25 years in higher education as a writer, career center director, assistant dean of students and program manager.

Laura and Patrick Mullen of San Luis Obispo, Calif., parents of incoming freshman Paige Mullen, were struck by Johnson’s descriptions of how having a child in college will impact the whole family’s dynamic.

“We liked her mobile analogy,” said Laura. “We hadn’t really considered how Paige’s absence will impact her younger siblings — we will need to be sensitive to that.”

Johnson told parents they should recognize that the transition will bring on powerful emotions. Parents should take pride and comfort in the fact that they have been great parents who have given their children the skills and ability to thrive.

She said that while this generation is connected to their children in ways never before seen through texting, e-mail, Twitter and Skype, the continuation of the “electronic umbilical cord” into the college years can actually hurt a student’s development.

“Try to wean yourself from daily phone and e-mail contact,” Johnson advised. “Your child admires you, likes you and wants to stay connected, but that closeness can get in the way of your child making steps to independence.”

She encouraged parents to settle into the role of a consultant, rather than a managerial role.

“A consultant is a guide and coach to help someone through the process of making decisions,” she says. “Parents should play a neutral role, offer a receptive ear, and provide loving reassurance that the student is capable of managing their own life.”

Johnson’s talk at the 2010 event was her eighth appearance at DU.  The Parent and Family Orientation is a two-day event that runs concurrently with the Discoveries program for new students. It is designed to provide parents with information and resources to successfully provide support throughout their student’s career at the University of Denver. 

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