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“Trust us to take care of your student and let them make their own choices."

In my role of helping students succeed in college, I usually interact with parents in three different scenarios: during new student orientation, Family Weekend, and when parents are really upset.

During freshmen orientation, especially during parent-facing events, you’ll likely hear a message that goes something like this: we are so excited you are here, you’ve made the right choice, we have all the following resources and people to take care of your student, and the oh so prevalent “trust us to take care of your student” quote above. Full disclosure: I’ve said similar things to parents before.

Translation: don’t go to another school, and don’t be a helicopter parent that suffocates your student and creates more work for us. If you are, unhappy, however, someone like the Dean of Students or equivalent would be delighted to have a prolonged discourse with you and/or your spouse. Sarcasm aside, what should you make of the axiomatic advice to trust the college to take care of your student?

On the one hand, the statement is true enough. If you have chosen a place for your students, then, yes, you should have the confidence to trust the school to do its part. Yes, you should also provide space to allow your student to feel like they can make their own decisions, knowing that they are not going to get it all right.

On the other hand, that statement is usually aimed at a small and memorable group of parents who tend to be ‘helicopter parents,’ or at least who frequently exhibit helicopter parent-like tendencies. And such a message, honestly, might make little impact on that group. However, what can be heard by non-helicopter parents (which by far and large is the majority of parents) from such a message might be: “Let go – or else you will suffocate/hinder/embarrass your kids.”

Some parents do just that – they become almost completely hands-off, not because they want to be, or even because they should, but because they hear that they are advised/told to do so. Fast forward into the Spring semester, and there are upset families whose students did not have their expectations met, usually in some academic way. When I’m on the phone with upset parents, it’s because something has not gone according to expectations (e.g. their smart student had a really bad academic semester, some type of conduct situation went wrong and they are not that type of kid, a person/policy on campus was utterly unprofessional and unfair).

Parents are now thinking that perhaps they should have been more involved. They are tempted to swing the pendulum hard the other way: over-involvement, which includes riding their kids through the entire rest of the semester because they have lost trust in both the college and their students. The generic transport helicopter parent has been recalled, and the advanced attack Apache helicopter parent has been dispatched.

Sometimes, such situations are unavoidable. More often than not, however, they could have been prevented. When such things go wrong, it almost always involves elements of unclear communication and unspoken expectations. One remedy is fairly simple, yet also fairly rare: honest communication between families and their students throughout their educational experience process, before these types of events, occur.

Timing on this is key, and the timing for you all as high school is now (not after you have dropped your kids off to college and heard the “trust us with your students” speech). So let’s take some inventory. How often do you and your student explicitly dialogue about your role in their educational experience? Or do you, like so many, leave it fairly vague, and in doing so, leave unspoken expectations on the table? Such unspoken expectations, especially during significant transition points such as high school to college, can be like hidden landmines that lead to unnecessary misunderstandings, friction, and emotional explosions.

So: communicate with your student. Listen to them, be vulnerable enough to share some of your worries, and that you love them and are proud of them, no matter what. Yes, trust your college and your students, give your students their space, and be involved throughout the process. After all, you shouldn’t expect even the most caring and competent of colleges to know or care about your students more than you do. Therefore, trust your instincts as a parent, and guide your student toward making wise, informed choices.

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David Q. Hao, MA, JD, is the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at the University of St. Thomas (TX) and serves as the chief student affairs and student success officer. David earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence and Master of Higher Education Administration degrees from Boston College, his Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Baylor University, and is a licensed attorney in the great state of Texas.