Helping or Helicoptering? Fordham Parents, Students Strike the Balance
by Jennifer Spencer
College marks that fine line between childhood and adulthood. For parents and students alike, finding the balance between helpfulness and independence can be a tough line to toe.
Fordham mom Patti Schechter said the summer before her daughter Savannah, a freshman at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, left for school was excruciating. As her daughter began to stay out later and enjoy her freedom, Patti said she stayed up all night worrying.
But now that Savannah is at Fordham?
"It's been pretty good," Patti said. "Better than I expected. What works for me, at least, is that ignorance is bliss."
Schechter, who is a single mom, said she talks to her daughter at least once every day. But rather than worrying about what time Savannah walks in the door, she trusts—or at least tries to—that everything will be OK.
"I know she's a young girl and she's spreading her wings, but I trust her. I raised her right," Schechter said.
Jeffrey Ng, Psy.D., director of Fordham University's Counseling and Psychological Services, said that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to parents seeking to strike the fine balance between caring for their students and "hovering."
"One of the most important things that a parent can do is to have a conversation with their kid about what might be that right balance within the context of the family system, who the child is, from a temperamental perspective, as well as who the parents are," Ng said.
For Patti and Savannah, it's been an ongoing negotiation. Patti said she has asked her daughter to check in once a day.
"She will tell me, ‘So-and-so only talks to her daughter twice a week,' and I tell her, ‘Well, I'm not so-and-so's mother.' I need to have some sort of contact daily, even a text message," she said.
Savannah, whose hometown of Patterson, N.J., is just a short drive away, said she has appreciated having her mom so close. While she recognizes that not every family dynamic is the same, she said it works for them.
"It's really wonderful being far enough from home to feel like I'm in a different place, but still having the opportunity to see my mom for lunch," Savannah said.
She recalled a moment at orientation, during a speech by one of the deans, that made her and her mom look at each other and say, "It's going to be OK."
"My mom finally felt Fordham was the perfect place for me, and she felt it was a safe atmosphere where I could become the person she envisioned me becoming," Savannah said.
"I always felt that too, but having her trust the University and not needing to call me every three seconds really helped me," she said.
For families still working on figuring out the right balance, the holidays can be a time to check in on how parent-child communication has been progressing during the year.
As students grow and progress, parents have an ongoing opportunity to help them have the space they need while still building a strong relationship.
"Parents have to really think about and be committed to whether they want to try and find this balance. It has to be authentic and genuine," Ng said. "Young adults are going to pick up on anything that feels contrived."
Ng said that part of the challenge that parents and college-age children encounter stems from the simple fact that their relationship is going through so much change. The child is beginning to step into adulthood, but often still reliant on their parents for financial and other support.
"One way to start a conversation is by letting the child know that you see both sides of the equation. That children recognize, on the one hand, they're not autonomous adults yet, but that parents recognize there's an important need and drive to strive for autonomy," Ng said.
Ng said he encourages parents who are having a hard time letting go to trust that the time they have invested in their children has left an indelible mark.
"After 18 years of parenting, you can be confident that something has been internalized. Children have developed a sort of parental compass inside of them, and that will never go away. We have to trust, as parents, that this compass is in them," Ng said.
Schechter said she has already seen Savannah following her internal parental compass in a couple of cases. While Savannah has always been responsible, Patti said, she has developed a whole new appreciation for all the things Mom used to do for her at home.
"She had never done a load of laundry in her life," Patti laughed. "I was always here to tidy up after her, but now that she's on her own, she's the one doing the tidying [in her suite.] I'm glad she's able to see how much was done for her before."