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The Freshman Year - When The Training Wheels Come Off

The day parents leave their son or daughter on campus, especially for the first time, is perhaps both the happiest and saddest day of the academic year. The happiness comes from the pride and sense of accomplishment that parents feel as they see their child, now a young adult, enter into a world of new challenges and opportunities for growth and success. Parents have often been planning (financially, academically, personally) for this day for years, and they have the joy of seeing their dreams and aspirations for their student begin to take shape.

The sadness comes from the pain always associated with change and having to let go of someone loved. Parents experience vivid memories of special moments in the lives of their son or daughter, and they wonder how the time has passed so quickly. The process of letting go has been going on for years, with the first day of kindergarten, the first sleep over, and the first broken heart being landmarks on the journey. But the fact that it has been going on for a long time does little to lessen the pain, and the vision of many parents has been blurred by tears of separation as they have driven out of the Harrisonburg city limits.

As families attempt to manage this time of change and transition, one memory which may be helpful to parents is that of when they were teaching their child to ride a bike. Teaching a child to ride a bike requires the delicate balance of knowing when to hold on and when to let go. Hold on too long and the child remains dependent on the parent's stabilizing influence. The experience needed to master the skill comes too slowly. Holding on too long also takes its toll on the parent who has to keep running next to the bike.

However, letting go presents problems of its own. The little boy or girl will need the support of a steadying parental hand as they learn to ride. As parents consider letting go and trusting the child's developing sense of balance, they have to deal with the very real fear that the novice rider might lose control, crash the bike, and end up with a scraped knee or worse. The fear of their child being hurt is a powerful fear, and many parents are hesitant to take the risk and remove their hands.

The next section offers a number of practical suggestions to help you discover when it might be best to hold on and when to consider letting go.

Helping Your Freshman Adjust To Life At JMU

Fortunately, parents can do a lot to help their students survive the turbulent waters of the freshman year. Among the suggestions most frequently mentioned by "veteran" parents are:

  • Convey your confidence in your student's ability to be successful in college. The confidence and bravado that students often display as they head off to college is normally a mask worn to hide the fears and doubts that almost all incoming students have. Expressed parental support and encouragement are much more important than students will typically acknowledge. Freshmen especially need to know that their parents support them and believe in their ability to handle the new challenges college will bring.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. When parents respond too harshly to a freshman's first mistake or failure, the student often becomes defensive and will no longer offer important information (e.g., about grades, roommate problems, dating relationships, etc.). As a result, minor problems that could be easily solved with a little parental guidance may become major crises, some of which could jeopardize the student's enrollment. Give your freshman a chance to openly talk about concerns, and then follow the next suggestion.
  • Don't rush in and solve problems. Most parents have a high investment in their student's decisions. Taking a step back as a parent is uncomfortable, perhaps even frightening, because there is no guarantee that your student will assume responsibility or make the decision that you might think is best. The irony is that students often don't step up to responsibility until parents step back. Remember, you will not always be there when a problem comes up in life. Students need the experience of solving problems on their own, because valuable lessons are learned and confidence built in the process. In fact, among the most important words a parent can utter to a freshman are, "What do you think you should do about this problem?" Listen to the answer. Encourage him or her to find the individual or office on campus that deals with that area of student life and to independently resolve the matter.
  • Be realistic about grades. Students are going to be faced with much more difficult and demanding academic coursework than they had in high school. Further, the grading curve is not going to be as helpful anymore, because the students at JMU, on average, are smarter and more motivated than the typical high school student. As a result, not every straight-A student in high school will be a straight-A student in college.
  • Visit. Visits by parents (especially those that include a shopping spree or dinner out) are another part of first year events that freshmen are reluctant to admit liking but that they greatly appreciate. Visits give students a chance to introduce some of the important people in both his/her worlds (home and school) to each other. Additionally, it's a way for parents to become familiar with (and more understanding of) their student's new commitments, activities, and friends. Spur-of-the- moment "surprise" visits are typically not a good idea. Instead, parents should schedule a special time, such as Family Weekend, to visit. That way, they may even get to see a clean room!
  • Don't rush or push your student into a major or career. Ironically, parents should be more concerned if their freshman student is totally committed to a single career path. Most eighteen-year-olds do not have the wisdom and life experience required to be definite about such an important decision. Rushing the decision to select a major or pushing a student into a career in which he or she has no interest is an almost certain recipe for academic disaster.
  • Talk about finances, especially credit cards. Before he or she hits campus, clearly let your freshmen know what you will and what you will not contribute to college expenses. Based on this, help them to develop a monthly budget to determine how they will make ends meet. It is especially important to educate your student about the proper use of financial credit. Credit card companies aggressively pursue college students, offering promotional gifts and easy access to credit. Unfortunately, many students lack the knowledge and/or the maturity to manage credit in a responsible way. If your student requests a credit card for "emergencies," a good rule of thumb is: If you can eat it, drink it, or wear it, it's not an emergency. A student should have no more than one credit card and pay off the entire balance at the end of each month.
  • Inform your student about important family matters, even if the news is not good. While there is no need to share every family issue or crisis, parents should tell students about an ill grandparent, the loss of a job, etc. Keeping the truth from students will likely make them even more anxious as they imagine what else might be happening back home without their knowledge.
  • Remind yourself that the character you worked to develop in your student will continue to guide him or her. Students often experiment with values that might be a bit more permissive than the ones in the family home, but this is a normal developmental process that helps them to develop their identity and independence apart from their parents. Try to bend a little and see these years as ones of transition into adulthood. It can help to look back at your own life and remember some of the crazy things you may have thought or did when you were that age.
  • Learn about the campus resources available to your student. JMU is filled with caring individuals who are dedicated to helping students adjust to the academic and social demands of university life. Faculty and staff have had years of experience working with students and have a pretty good idea of when to hold on and when to let go. Encourage your student to take advantage of these campus resources. If your student tells you that there is no one to help, don't believe it. He or she probably has not looked hard enough.