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A Visitor’s Guide to Your Offspring

How to navigate the first freshman visit

Parents Weekend just passed, and thousands of Boston University parents visited with their sons and daughters for the first time since they left for college several weeks ago. For the majority, the occasion was a rewarding bonding experience. For the parents of some freshmen, it also involved delicately negotiating a new balance of power. The students may be rightfully proud of their ability to take control of their lives, and some parents may be nervous about the many choices that students have to make.

To get some professional advice about how this issue and others may play out, BU Today spoke with David McBride, a physician and the director of Boston University’s Student Health Services.

BU Today: Should parents treat their sons and daughters differently now that they are college students?
McBride: The process of encouraging independence and self-reliance really starts in the cradle. We hope that when students come to university, they have been encouraged to make decisions independently and in the context of a moral framework established by their family. Provided that process has happened, parents can continue to encourage the same. I do still talk to students who are relying on their parents to be their advocates without standing up for themselves first. The first “call” when a student encounters a difficult situation should be from the student to the person or system where the problem initiates and not from the student to their parent. Parents should treat their college student like an independent adult, complete with holding them accountable for mistakes and praising them when they succeed.

Should parents try to give kids a break from their campus environment this weekend or should they spend all of their time on campus?
I would suggest letting your college student take the lead in this. Students may want to show families what their life is like. This may not fit with exactly what parents want to do.

Are there specific ways that parents can show respect for their sons’ or daughters’ independence?
I think that parents can allow students to make decisions during Parents Weekend. If your student wants to go to a particular restaurant, go with it. If your student wants to just hang out with you around campus and not “see all of the sights of Boston,” go with that.

What about siblings? Should they come to Parents Weekend?
My sibs enjoyed spending time with me when I was in college. I think having sibs along is great.

How can parents know that their sons and daughters are happy?
Seeing your student interact with friends is an important clue. I think that involvement in student life and organizations is a good indicator of adjustment. Performance in school can also be an indicator of relative happiness.

Are students likely to be more communicative or less communicative than when they were at home?
Every student is different in this regard. Sometimes students may be less communicative because they are trying to establish their independence and may want family to “butt out.” This is a normal part of development.

How, if at all, should parents and students discuss grades and expectations?
I believe that families should have this discussion before a student goes off to college. “If we are paying the bill, this is what we expect.” I don’t think that a parent can suddenly set up rules if there have never been any in the past. It is important that everyone, not just college students, understand that there are rewards and consequences based on one’s performance in life.

At this point, is there such a thing as parental authority? Or is there just parental advice?
I think that this question revolves entirely on what the relationship has been like prior to college. Every family is different in this regard.

Are there likely to be issues that students are embarrassed or afraid to ask for help about?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes students call wanting their family to help them out with everything. Open communication with your student is the best that families can do in this regard, I believe.

How can parents encourage their son or daughter to make good decisions when they’re not around?
You can provide a good role model when you are with them. If you take your son or daughter out to dinner, you can conduct yourself the way that you’d like them to act. That means moderation when it comes to drinking, among other things. Your actions have a huge impact on the actions of your son or daughter.

What’s the worst mistake a parent can make?
I think that thinking you can make a worst mistake is a worst mistake. Who said, “You worry too much — cut it out!”? Parents should just be who they are and enjoy their student during Parents Weekend.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.