Mar 29, 2010, 11:39

We all know that there are many stages of parenting -- infancy, early childhood, adolescence, and so on. And along the way, parenting styles should change to respond best to what kids and teens need most from parents.

By the time kids are readying for college, parents need to be sure they're playing the right role---helping their children leave the nest and begin life as a young adult.

Are we helping them to become emotionally independent, self-reliant young adults? Or do we have a tendency to hang on, clinging to our kids in relationships that keep them tethered, as studies suggest?

"It is common for a parent to feel a range of emotions, from loss to relief, when their young adult child moves out of the family home," says Susan Berlin, a psychotherapist in Washington D.C. "Ultimately we have to let our children fly and be independent and autonomous, make their own mistakes and separate from us, the parents."

"This transition is often the most difficult for a parent, even more than the transition of a child getting married," says Laura Gauld, parenting expert and co-author with husband Malcolm of the book 'The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have' and founders of The Biggest Job parenting seminars. "We advocate for our kids for so many years, raising them, shaping then, helping them develop their character, and teaching them to make choices.

"Then, in high school, we take them through the complicated process of preparing for college---the SATs, the applications, essays, financial aid paperwork, the harrowing wait for acceptance letters, the visits to campuses---it goes on and on! Then one day, we drop them off and leave them to it -- confidently -- in an ideal world."

That doesn't come easy for many of today's parents say the Gaulds. Leaders of Hyde Schools, a network of public and private schools located on the East Coast that specialize in leadership and character development--and parents themselves -- they have experienced firsthand the dramatic shift in parenting over the past two decades, from the strict yet hands-off approach of previous generations of parents to the more lenient, micro-manager approach of today's parents.

"My parents were not interested in being my friend," says Malcolm. "Nor did they take my business, such as the business of applying to college into their hands. That was my responsibility, and I learned a lot from doing it all on my own."

Yet today, in addition to the classes and courses that aid teens in beginning life away from home, many colleges now have special classes for parents, even directing them on when to leave after they drop their kids on campus.

RTM College Consulting is an organization that helps students navigate the college search and application process. As part of this mission, they cover a range of topics that also includes "helping parents transition and 'let go'."

The Gaulds accept the view that most parents want what is best for their children. But they see how this difficulty in letting go does not serve kids well and may, in fact, be a factor in the college drop-out rate -- even though college enrollment is up.

"Many teens are not being prepared emotionally for life on their own," says Laura. "For the first time, a student will have to balance the demands of rigorous academic coursework combined with myriad social opportunities and virtually no supervision."

"It's a combination of variables that can trip up even the most disciplined and, what we might call, 'well-behaved' students," Malcolm adds. "Initially, college can be overwhelming for any student, and many will struggle, particularly those who are accustomed to having parents manage some or all of their lives. Fact is, one in four college freshmen drops out."

The Gaulds believe there are three types of students generally heading for college:

  1. Those who will take to college like ducks to water;

  2. Those who will engage in an inspired struggle to keep their heads above water;

  3. Those who will sink like a stone from the outset.

"Success or the lack of success in college may not have anything to do with academic ability," says Malcolm. "But it may have everything to do with a student's character -- and how he or she has been prepared to manage independence, time, studies, responsibilities, a social life and emotional well-being."

The Gaulds make a compelling point, as numerous studies cite weakening self-esteem, anxiety, depression, loneliness, even emerging health issues as the leading indicators of academic challenges and potential drop-out rates for college freshmen. But these factors are largely emotional in nature, suggesting that enrollment retention, in many cases, may be related to psychological, social, and self-care abilities needed for a major life transition -- that is, a level of emotional readiness that is missing.

"Any experience away from home is one of self-discovery," says Malcolm, "and that doesn't have to begin in college."

So, what should parents be doing? The Gaulds offer some suggestions:

  1. Let your kids have some experience with self-care on their own before college. Many schools have a class trip to a foreign country, for example. Encourage your teen to engage in a different environment like this without you. They can also go with a youth group or church to various retreats ranging from wilderness camp to missions that help those in another culture. All these things help your teenager to develop self-confidence and independent decision-making.

  2. By the time your child is preparing for college he or she should know the benefits of a nutritious diet and regular exercise; how to make a budget and maintain a checkbook; and basic tools and resources for emotional and spiritual comfort.

  3. Privacy is another important matter, especially in light of today's generation of immediate and electronic communications. So, give your child some space. Wait for the call or email to come to you, and only see it as an invitation to make a connection, rather than an onslaught of communication.

  4. Practice letting go before your child heads off to college. There are myriad ways parents can show their children they intend to back off. Every situation is different, because the level of control individual parents take with their children varies. Parents, access your level of control in your child's life and take measured steps to loosen the reins.

"Parents should honor their child's new-found independence by paying attention to how a child reacts to the frequency of phone calls, care packages, and other types of contact like emails and text messages," offers Berlin. "The young person is likely busy in their 'new life' and can feel invaded by the parents' need for contact."

Berlin suggests having a dialogue between the family members to negotiate some "terms and frequency of contact" so that everyone's needs can be considered.

Even in our attempt to cover all bases for our kids in helping them get out the door, life is uncertain, none of us is in complete control, and some challenges may arise that we did not foresee.

"Teenagers may have a 'reality check' during the first semester when suddenly the reality of being on their own hits," says Laura. "While it's important to remain loving and supportive, parents need to remember they can't---and shouldn't---run in to 'fix' their blossoming adult's life. They're beyond that. Their life is meant to be lived now, warts and all."

About the Authors:
Malcolm and Laura Gauld are the heads of the Hyde Schools, the group of character-building boarding and charter schools, whose pioneering philosophy has been profiled on 60 Minutes, 20/20, Today, PBS and NPR. Together they are the co-authors of the book The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have (Scribner), as well as the founders of parenting seminars that emerged from it. To learn more about Malcolm and Laura Gauld, or their parenting workshops, visit or, or contact Rose Mulligan at 207-443-7379 or

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