Being a good parent is the toughest job in the world. Parenting involves a seemingly limitless set of skills and tasks, and it is rare that any of us were explicitly taught anything about how to perform them. We simply watch others, primarily our own parents, and model ourselves after them. But this often means we acquire both good and bad habits. All parents, even the best parents, make mistakes along the way. This seems to be a part of the human condition, and it is unavoidable. Nonetheless, it is possible for us to catch ourselves making these mistakes, to interrupt them, and to improve upon our parenting skills.
In some ways, being a good parent of a college student is even tougher. Not only are we expected (by our children, friends, society) to make good judgments across many dimensions of our young adult children’s lives, we are supposed to do it from a distance, as most often they are not living in our homes while in college. They are away, yet their needs continue and are changing as they mature. Our students still need some support, and yet they are growing and should be able to provide some things for themselves. They still need us to monitor their progress somewhat, and yet they can and should supervise themselves in important ways. How much do we give? When do we withhold? How closely do we watch them? When do we let go? These are all difficult questions to which many parents are seeking answers.
In this post I will try to summarize what I have learned over 20+ years as a practicing psychologist who works exclusively with college students and their families. This is not an attempt to address all parenting skill sets because that would be an enormous, if impossible task. Rather, I will focus on two intersecting dimensions of college parenting behavior that provide, I believe, one helpful model of decision-making and actions. Understanding this model may help us parents not only evaluate our current patterns of judgments about our students, but also alter these patterns when that is needed.
Imagine a matrix based on two axes, gratification (vertical) and supervision (horizontal). In this model gratification refers to decisions or actions to provide, withhold or withdraw meaningful support for our student. More simply put, this refers to how much or how little we give (time, money, material possessions, etc) as parents. Note that the top of the vertical axis refers to parents who give a lot, too much in fact. On that end of the gratification dimension we are giving to our students when in fact they don’t need it and are capable of providing for themselves. At the bottom of this axis, we have parents who give too little. In other words, we as parents are at the bottom when our students are in fact not capable of providing for themselves and we are not attending to this need.
For the purpose of this model, the supervision dimension, on the horizontal axis, refers to the degree to which we as parents are monitoring or watching our students’ progress. Parents on the left side of the matrix are supervising too little. This would occur when we are not paying attention to our students’ lives when in fact they need it. At the right side of the dimension would be parents who are providing too much supervision. In other words, we as parents are on that side of the spectrum when are watching very, very closely at a time when our students do not need it; they are capable of functioning just fine without it.
At the center of the matrix we have the “ideal parent.” That is, we are the ideal college parent when we provide just the right amount of both gratification and supervision, neither too much nor too little, and we do it at the right time and in the right circumstances. Sounds easy, right?
Well, as you already know, it isn’t. Not by a long shot. It is very difficult to be ideal in these judgments. It requires that we know what our students are capable, and not capable, of doing at a particular moment in time and in a particular set of circumstances. Further, their capabilities change in a given time and situation. Just how in the heck do we become an ideal college parent?
Obviously, perfection is not possible, and we as parents shouldn’t expend all our energy trying to attain it. But we can improve what we do if we just know a little about what to look for, both in our students and in ourselves.
Before we go any farther, let’s take a look at some assumptions that are made in this model of college parenting.
- All parents make mistakes. Sometimes we give or watch too much or too little. Accepting this fact makes it possible for us to relax and try to do better.
- Parents move around the matrix. Very few of us always give or watch too much, or too little. One day we might give too much, the next too little, and so on. After all, we have bad days too.
- The “ideal” spot on the matrix depends on the development of your student and the situation in which he or she finds himself or herself. Depending on them and their circumstances, you may need to increase or decrease your level of gratification and supervision. The key is knowing your student and what he or she should be capable of doing on their own.
- We can “move” toward an ideal spot on the matrix. Once you grasp the nature of your student’s capabilities and their circumstances, you can engage in a decision or action which is close to an ideal spot on the matrix.
Now that we have some of the basics out of the way, let’s focus on the styles of parenting that are revealed by the matrix. The two intersecting dimensions of gratification and supervision result in four parenting quadrants. These are:
- Over-gratifying and over-supervising, or infantilizing. Parents who give and supervise too much are treating their students like infants, as though they are not capable of providing for or monitoring themselves.
- Over-gratifying and under-supervising, or accommodating. Parents who give too much but supervise too little are simply accommodating their students, granting all their wishes without any expectations for or monitoring of their behavior.
- Under-gratifying and over-supervising, or controlling. Parents who give very little but watch very closely don’t adequately provide for needs but closely monitor the behavior of their students appear more interested in controlling or managing their affairs.
- Under-gratifying and under-supervising, or neglecting. Parents who neither provide for needs nor monitor behavior are neglecting of their student’s development.
In this model, the terms infantilizing, accommodating, controlling and neglecting are viewed as negative parenting styles because it is assumed that the style doesn’t match the needs or development of the student. Parents who engage in the most extreme versions of these styles would be plotted at the corners of the matrix, and those who are less extreme would be plotted near the center. The quadrants are based upon an unspecified, hypothetical student and situation, so it is purely artificial. Only in theory should we, as parents, be “in the center” of this matrix. If our young adult is perfectly able to provide for and monitor themselves, then of course we should be in the center. Obviously, many students are not yet able to fully provide for or monitor themselves. Therefore the ideal spot on the matrix depends on the individual student, his or her capabilities, and his or her situation. There are times when it is appropriate for us to increase or decrease our gratification and supervision of our young adult children. When we do well in matching our responses to our students in this way, we are in effect advancing their own healthy psychological development.
A Few Examples
Let’s attempt to apply the model to real-life people and situations. (Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect their identities). Read the following scenarios and try to plot the parenting style on the matrix. You might also ask yourself how you would respond to the situation, and plot your own style on the matrix as well.
- Chris, a 20-year old male student has received a D in a college class. It is his only grade below a B at this point. He is alcohol- and drug-free, manages his own finances well, and has never been arrested or in violation of the school’s code of conduct. His parents are disappointed in the grade, but have never voiced their expectations for his performance and continue to provide him over $3000 per month in “spending money.” But due to their concern over the D, one parent drives four hours to campus every week to make sure he attends his therapy session. She calls to wake him every morning, and calls throughout the day to make sure he has attended class and other commitments. She insists on reading his mail and paying his bills for him.
- A 19-year old female student, Valerie, has accrued over $40,000 in debt on 17 credit cards. She is drinking alcohol excessively and much of the money has been spent on food and alcohol for her friends, concerts, and travelling away from campus. Her father, a health care professional, writes a single check to pay for the debt. There is no other action taken.
- Nikita, 21-year old female student, is entirely self-sufficient financially. She works 20 hours per week, and pays her own tuition and rent through her income and student loans. She lives in a rickety apartment in a less-than-desirable part of town. She is often fatigued and stressed, and is embroiled in conflict with a boyfriend who is using drugs and is sometimes emotionally abusive. Her father suspects the boyfriend is spending the nights with his daughter in her apartment. He installs a digital camera in her bedroom without her knowledge and consent.
- An 18-year old male student named Ronald is living out of his vehicle and does not have enough funds to buy books or other class materials. He pulls this off for awhile but eventually the stress involved takes a toll and he has an emotional breakdown. He seeks help at the university and a representative contacts the parents for support. They refuse to come to town, as they live in another state. They do call their son, and tell him to “shape up quick.”
These are examples of, in order, the infantilizing, accommodating, controlling, and neglecting styles of parenting. In each case, the response provided did not match the students’ capabilities or their situation. Using the matrix as our guide, we can attempt to plot a more appropriate response in these examples.
Chris needs less gratification and supervision. His D grade is not catastrophic and it is apparent he is capable of functioning well and monitoring himself. Expectations about grades should, however, be communicated.
Valerie needs less gratification and more supervision. It is clear that her resources are more than adequate but that she is not fully capable to manage choices on her own.
Nikita needs more gratification and less supervision. She is independent and capable of functioning on her own, but needs more resources to do it well. The supervision being provided seems more oriented toward catching her doing something unapproved of by her parents than being helpful to her.
Ronald needs more gratification and supervision. His needs are being neglected entirely.
Applying the Model to Your Student
The examples provided above represent extremes in some ways. It may be much more challenging to apply the matrix to your own young adult child. And yet it can be done. You may want to start by asking yourself a few simple questions:
- What is my student capable of doing on his or her own? Is there evidence in history for providing for their own resources? Of monitoring their own choices and conduct?
- How does he or she compare with his or her peers in these areas? Do they seem capable of more or less than their peers? If they seem less capable, this doesn’t mean that you need to maintain high levels of support and monitoring. You may need to start high but have a plan to gradually diminish these levels as your student reaches milestones.
- How has your student handled problems or crises in the past? Did they do it well or poorly? A reasonably healthy 17- to 24-year old should be able to manage a wide range of issues on their own.
- What has your student needed from you in the past? Did it help? Did he or she learn from what you gave them?
- What is the nature of their current situation? Is it a situation that is common or typical for young adults? Or is it something that most college students do not experience?
Now let’s look at some rather ordinary situations that frequently arise with college students. Try again to think of your response to each of the following situations and plot them on the matrix. This time, assume that what follows is the only information you have about the situation. By the way, these too represent real-life situations; they have actually occurred and with some regularity.
- Your student was late on an assignment and needs to talk to the professor. She asks you to contact the professor.
- Your student is in conflict with his roommate and wants to move out of the dorm or get a new roommate.
- Your student overdrew her checking account and has a fee to pay. She asks you to put more money in the account.
- Your student was cited for underage drinking. He has a court appearance and fees to pay. He asks you to help with these responsibilities.
- Your student reveals that she only passed one of four classes this semester. It is time to register for the next semester’s classes.
- Your student calls you at 11:30PM to say that he has no clean clothes.
- Your student tells you that she does not know how or where to buy books.
- Your student sends you an email in which she informs you that he has a bad cold and has missed classes for two days.
All other things being equal, in each case there are actions these students need to take to meet their responsibilities or take care of their needs, and they should be able to do this with minimal supervision. Any role you take would be minor, mostly restricted to providing information (or helping them find it). It would be rarely necessary, if not ineffective, for a parent to resolve these matters instead of the young adult child doing so.
In short, you can make an educated guess about the approach to parenting that is appropriate given your student’s history and situation. If their history is such that they are capable of securing their own resources and of supervising themselves independently, then you may want to decrease gratification and support. If their situation is unusual for most college students, then you may want to increase gratification and supervision. The model is flexible, so we as parents can be too. If you find that you are “off the mark”, don’t worry. Just regroup and make another attempt toward a different point in the matrix. Do this as many times as you need. Remember, we don’t have to be perfect. We just need to try and do our best. After some tweaking, that will be good enough.