When the training wheels come off

by David Onestak


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 child needs 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.

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 Expressed parental support and encouragement are much more important than students will typically acknowledge.
  • Avoid the “New Leaf Syndrome.” While incoming students and their families often hope that past issues and problems will disappear with the move to campus, the changes and stresses inherent in the transition to college frequently cause old problems and patterns to reemerge, as if they were packed along with other items that students brought from home. Students with a history of mental health concerns should maintain relationships with their providers and continue with prescribed therapeutic regimens, whether it be counseling, medication, or both. Prior to the beginning of the academic year, provide your student with opportunities for taking greater ownership of health-related matters (e.g. taking over-the-counter medications, using a thermometer, practicing how to call to make an appointment or request a refill of medication, learning the basics of health insurance).
  • Keep the lines of communication open. When parents respond too harshly to a student’s first mistake or failure, the student often becomes defensive and may 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 familial guidance may become major crises, some of which could jeopardize the student’s enrollment. Give your student 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 your student 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.
  • Use technology to connect, not to monitor. Talk with your student about the frequency of texts and phone calls that will be most beneficial to everyone. If distance makes in-person visits a challenge, develop a schedule of when you will use video conferencing technology to touch base more comprehensively. If you are using tracking devices to monitor your student’s location and behavior, consider relinquishing some or all of those applications. Doing so communicates the important and powerful messages that the world is not continuously filled with danger and that you want to trust them to make good decisions.
  • Don’t rush or push your student into a major or career. Ironically, parents should probably 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 and occupational problems.
  • Talk about finances, including credit cards. Before coming to campus, clearly let your student 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. 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.
  • 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 them. 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 ill-advised 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 there’s no one to help, don’t believe it. They probably haven’t looked hard enough.

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Published: Monday, August 8, 2022

Last Updated: Tuesday, August 9, 2022

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