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'You're going to put me on a contact diet?'

College freshmen, their parents work out ground rules for staying in touch
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Aviva Hirsch and her mother, Hope Finkelstein, pose for a photo for Aviva's grandmother and Hope's mother, Claire Finkelstein, at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. on Aug. 29. This is Aviva's freshman year at the university. Richard Messina | Hartford CourantMCT
 Posted: 2:00 AM September 13, 2012

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Wesleyan University freshman Rhys Podell had a suggestion for his mother, Marie-Alise deMarco, not long before she left for home in California last week.

"What I want to do is, like, maybe the first two days — not a lot of contact "… ," said Rhys, who was just settling into life at Wesleyan.

"You're going to put me on a contact diet?" his mother asked with amusement.

Rhys said he'd be in touch "when it feels right."

For many students entering college and their parents, working out the complicated dance of how much to stay in touch — and through which technological means — is well under way. With Facebook and Skype and texting and phone calls, not staying in constant touch can be nearly impossible.

The habits and haunts of the "helicopter parent" have been so well-publicized in recent years — along with the ease and speed of what might be called "ihovering" — that parents are far more aware of trying to balance their desire to check in with kids against the resolve not to be "that parent."

And many college kids, such as Rhys, have firmer ideas about ground rules.

Colleges have helped parents to understand the pros and cons of the instant communication available to them through special orientation programs. Newsletters and websites also provide school-related information to parents that may cut down on the need for them to quiz their kids.

Besides running parent orientation programs, many schools also have parent handbooks, parent portals to websites, and special newsletters for parents that keep them apprised of what's happening on campus.

"Trinity is trying to consciously find interesting ways, productive ways that parents can be involved," said Margaret Lindsey, first-year dean at Trinity College. She said the college encourages parents to learn about what's happening there by going to the Trinity website instead of always communicating through their children.

At Wesleyan's orientation program, where parents and students were gathered just before departure time, it was clear that they are thinking more about how they communicate.

"I've definitely been kind of coaching myself," said deMarco, Rhys' mother. "I don't want to hover. I'm just telling myself to take it easy and trust what we've taught him. He's a responsible young man, and he'll call us when needs us."

A check with college administrators in Connecticut turned up plenty of evidence that many parents continue to be overly involved in the lives of their college children — by email or phone calls or texts to wake kids up in the morning, remind them of test dates, edit papers or question grades. Some parents have even filled out roommate preference forms for their children and acquired their student's passwords so they can log on to email, or tune into online classes and lectures.

Those parents have earned new nicknames: "Blackhawk" and "Velcro" parents.

But there is also an indication that some parents are showing more restraint.

Suzanne Anderson McNeil, assistant vice president of student affairs at the University of Hartford, said some parents are more conscious about their choices when it comes to communicating with their kids.

"They'll say directly to you: 'I don't want to be a helicopter parent.' " McNeil said. "That's surprising. That didn't happen 10 years ago. "… I do think it's different now. The conversations are different. Parents are more educated.

"It's gone from 'oh my God, your killing me, back-off' involvement to now it's more comfortable," McNeil said. "I think more parents recognize that we want their students to own what they are doing and want the parents to partner with us, but parent from a distance and let students make their own mistakes."

In the past, McNeil said, a parent might call about a student's problem and demand, "I want you to fix it right now."

Now, she said, they are more open to her suggestion that the student should talk to her or reach out to other university resources for help. McNeil said she is getting less "pushback" now.

"You try to meet the parents halfway and comfort them, but also empower them to empower their students," she said, "That's sometimes all they need. They need to know their voice is being heard."

In a sense, McNeil said, "you have to keep the parents involved if you want to keep them at bay. The goal is to work with students more and parents less."

Barbara Hofer, a Middlebury professor and co-author of "The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up," said more colleges and universities are running orientation programs that go beyond the usual warm welcome to address issues such as "the appropriate level of involvement" for parents.

From the beginning of their children's lives, she said, this generation of parents has been encouraged to get involved with education. With the help of technology, many parents naturally assume they will continue to do the same when the child gets to college.

Hofer said she doesn't understand why many parents feel the need to have daily contact with their college-aged children. Many students almost feel obliged to relay their experience of college back to their parents and "process" it with them.

"They don't sense an ownership that this is mine alone," Hofer said. "If every aspect of what is going on for you has to be related back home, that concerns me. They need to learn how to live their own lives without all of it being related back."

Hofer said she found in her research that students who were regulating their own lives — deciding which classes to take and how to spend their time — were happier with school and more satisfied with their lives than the students whose parents try to micromanage.

Hofer, who is about to update her study, said she thinks parents have shifted from using primarily cellphone calls to using text messages. To some degree, she said, that puts more control in the students' hands.

Back at Wesleyan, Matthew Stein, a freshman from Allentown, Pa., said some kids feel that talking to a parent everyday "impedes their independence," but he sees it as "a healthy normal form of communication." He said he appreciates getting his parents "outside perspective" when he feels overwhelmed with decisions about classes and activities.

His mother, Diane Goldstein Stein, said she'd just like to have some kind of communiqué every day — whether a call, a text or a Facebook message.

"Just something so we know he's OK," Stein said, "even if he can't talk."


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