Colleges try to help hyper-involved parents let go

From writing "goodbye time" on the move-in day schedule to having plenty of Kleenex to cope with the tears, local colleges are coping with hyper-vigilant parents who struggle to let go of their babies.

"It's a national phenomenon," said Mona Wyatt, director of donor relations and parent programs at Centre College.

As students prepare to move into the dorms starting next month, administrators are coping with a growing trend known as "Velcro parents" (because they stick fast to their kids) or "lawn mower parents" (because they'll mow over anyone who stands in their child's way) or "helicopter parents" (because they hover over their children).

The trend is so pervasive that it has many names, and Nancy Stephens, assistant director of new student and parent programs at the University of Kentucky, said it's a frequent topic of conversation among members of the American Association of Higher Education Parent/Family Program Professionals.

It's a much different scenario from when Wyatt started working with parents in the 1980s. Then, she said, parents "dropped their students off on campus and we heard very little after that."

Now, parents can have contact all day every day via cellphones.

"When I walk on campus and I listen to cellphone calls, I tell you that nine out of 10 are talking to their parents, not to their friends."

Wyatt, who will send her son to college this fall, can understand the hovering inclination, but she also knows that parents have to let go. In the last few years, Centre has built into the move-in day schedule "goodbye time," pointing out very clearly that "this is when you get in your car and leave."

Stephens includes specific terminology in meetings with UK parents.

No, she tells them, "we" aren't signing up for classes or moving into the dorm; "your student" is doing that. And she never uses the words "your children," subtly trying to reinforce the idea that students are adults.

Most of the time, parents in a group setting listen to suggestions on how to let go of their college-age child, said Loni Crowe, coordinator of orientation and family programs at Eastern Kentucky University.

This year, Crowe added an article to the parents' handbook explaining why it is best never to contact a faculty member on behalf of their children.

There often are good reasons that parents are anxious about sending their children to college. Families are generally smaller, and parents are waiting longer to have children, so there is more energy and expectation attached to each one, Stephens said.

Parenting goals have shifted from previous generations in that "we have so much invested in making sure they are happy," Stephens said.

Crowe, Wyatt and Stephens said the enthusiasm parents have about their children making the most of their campus experiences can be harnessed in a positive way.

UK has revamped its parent program to mimic a college class, complete with a quiz, and it regularly sends newsletters to parents highlighting campus events and study sessions, hoping parents will share the information with their students.

"A suggestion from Mom and Dad never hurts," Stephens said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader