Listen: Letting go (Olesen)-5107

MPR’s Nanci Olesen talks with parents and students about what it is like to be away from one another while in college.

When a kid heads off to college, parents are forced to separate themselves from what has been a constant hands-on job for years. And for two decades, a lot of parents have relied on a book called, "Letting Go” by Madge Lawrence Treeger, who also joins Olesen in this report, to help with the change.


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NANCY OLSON: Madge Treeger saw a need for a book about sending a kid to college while she and co-author Karen Coburn were on staff at Washington University in Saint Louis. Year after year, they watched a lot of freshmen and their parents struggle through the separation, and Treeger herself was sending her own kids off to college.

MADGE TREEGER: We had heard so many things from students about their parents wanting to be helpful, but intruding in different ways and not understanding and then going through it ourselves. So it may have been our way of letting go as well.

NANCY OLSON: In the edition of Letting Go published in 2003, the authors noted that some parents were buying their kids cell phones before they left for college. But today, even grade schoolers have cell phones and are capable of being an hourly contact with mom and dad.

At the food court in Coffman Union on the University of Minnesota Campus, it's lunch rush. Freshman John Jung is finishing his nachos. He talks to his parents maybe once a week, but he says that's unusual.

JOHN JUNG: I noticed how some college students here like their parents or their best friends almost. So they like to keep in touch, especially because their parents always encourage keeping in touch with them at school or that kind of thing where they say, hey, if anything happens, just call me or if you need to talk, just call me, or let me know what you're doing tomorrow.

NANCY OLSON: It's common for students to be on their phones as they walk between classes. Some of them are talking to their parents. Alex Edwards is also a freshman at the UMN. She says that a lot of her friends hear from their parents every day.

ALEX EDWARDS: They'll call a lot. And they will want them to come home every weekend. I'm really glad that my mom isn't like that.

NANCY OLSON: Alex's mom lives in Saint Paul. But to Alex, the Minneapolis Campus of the UMN feels like home. Her mom is Mary Kay Edwards. She says she's proud Alex is becoming independent.

MARY KAY EDWARDS: Well, I will call her and leave messages on her cell phone, and I will also send emails or she'll do likewise.

NANCY OLSON: But other parents have a harder time letting go. A new technology helps keep them connected to their kids. Some college officials believe that there's too much involvement from this generation of parents. Jim Hoppe is the Dean of Students at Macalester College in Saint Paul.

JIM HOPPE: I'll have a student who will leave my office, and before I know, I can see them walking down the path, and I'm getting an email or a phone call from the parent because they've called to report in on the meeting. They're just much more used to being in connection with their son or daughter, which is part of why, I think, it's tough on the parents then to figure out how to navigate this next step of their relationship, because they still do have a lot of this, almost constant connection.

NANCY OLSON: That connection between parents and kids isn't necessarily a problem, according to author Madge Treeger But she says parents shouldn't rush in to fix everyday problems for college students. Parents should keep in mind that they want their kid to become independent.

MADGE TREEGER: I think if you think that way, it doesn't matter how many times a day you call, it's a frame of mind of wanting your child to become self-reliant and wanting to enjoy the process.

NANCY OLSON: Treeger has been conducting focus groups around the country, including in Minnesota. She's finding that the question of how involved parents should be is a hot topic. She and her co-author are hoping to help parents, students, and college administrators negotiate the question of how to stay in touch, but not too much. In the next edition of Letting Go. For Minnesota Public Radio's Family Desk, I'm Nancy Olson.

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