Best ways to stay in touch with your college student
By Scott Sager
Before I know it (much sooner than I would like!), my 20-year-old will head back to campus. After a summer of seeing her face-to-face, I’ll resume long-distance parenting.
It’s her third year of college, so I know what to expect. First there will be a flurry of texts and emails asking us to ship things she left behind or requests for supplies like shampoo and laundry soap. In there somewhere will be a brief update on her fall classes. Then there will be silence for weeks at a time until she plans to come home again.
This seems to be common practice among the college students I know: bursts of communication right before coming home and after leaving again but not much in between.
I understand that this is a good sign and means my daughter is immersed in campus life. Still, during those quiet weeks, I can’t help wondering what’s up. In this era with so many communication options, it can seem as if I’m in touch with my student less than during my own days on campus when my parents required one call at the same time each week, placed from the dorm pay phone.
The reality is that I probably have more contact with my daughter but in smaller doses — a quick phone call when one of us has a question, a text or email about something at random times — than my parents ever had with me.
Nowadays there are so many ways to stay in touch with your student, every parent needs to think about both the why and how of making contact.
I consider every message for my daughter as fitting into one of three categories:
- Routine, requiring little or no response from my student;
- Important, items like planning for visits or events that need a reply but not right away; and
- Urgent, information I need to get to my daughter and that requires a reply pronto.
In thinking how to relay each type of message, I need to understand how my student views different modes of communication. Much like the Post Office (with regular, Priority and Express mail arriving at different speeds), students tend to receive and respond to the different modes in differing time frames. In my daughter’s world, phone calls are for important business only and indicate urgency. Texts require a reply, but not always immediately. Email is for stuff she can get to “whenever.” As for social media, the only time I contact her on Facebook is when I find an article I want to share.
Other students use these, and other social media and communication platforms, differently. Some of my daughter’s friends connect through LinkedIn and Twitter, while others don’t even have accounts. My daughter uses Snapchat but NEVER for contact with me.
Here are four guidelines for smooth sailing as you stay in touch with your college student:
Talk to your student…
…about how they want you to contact them and what pace they’ll respond to various types of messages. For example, agree that a phone call will get returned right away (or as soon as class is over) but a Facebook message can wait a few days.
Think about what you are looking for with each message.
For sharing information that really isn’t important or particularly timely, I’ve turned to writing my daughter letters and postcards, real ones that require stamps and a trip to her mailbox. She enjoys receiving them, and I can write everything I feel like telling her without taking up too much of her time. In addition, there’s no pressure for her to read them right away. I like to think of her finding a quiet spot, pulling out the pages and feeling connected to home.
Know how not to connect with your student.
Take care to respect boundaries and privacy. “Liking” all your student’s Facebook posts is sure to get you blocked. Likewise, sending your student a public reminder over Twitter to clean a room or do some laundry isn’t a good idea. College students have their own personal etiquette around what platform to use for what contact, part of their evolving sense of public and private selves. Parents will get the best response when they defer to the student in these matters.
Don’t forget another important strategy — the surprise.
A care package, a bag of candy or just a card can brighten their day and keep home on their minds a little bit and may get you an email or call just to say hi. Some ideas for care packages can be found here.
Staying in touch with your student can be challenging but you’re laying the foundation for how you’ll communicate all through college and into their adult life so it’s worth a little effort, creativity and patience.
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