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Spring Housing Guide

College students continue under parental guidance

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – All those cell phones on college campuses aren’t just talking to each other.

They’re speed-dialing home. A lot.

Got a problem with university bureaucracy? Mom and dad will know what to do. Time to kill between classes? Chat up mom or dad. Think you just blew a chemistry exam? Unload on the folks.

Not to mention the calls going the other direction.

“One mom mentioned that she calls her son to wake him up in the morning,” said Sandy Waddell, assistant dean of students at Rockhurst University. “She said if she didn’t, he might not make it to class. I told her I thought that was a bit over the top.”

Cell phones are a godsend for parents of high schoolers. The “electronic leash,” as some teens call it, assures that the kids have little excuse for not informing parents of their whereabouts. And mom and dad are quickly reachable if something goes awry.

But young adults in college are supposed to practice and prove their independence. All that contact, used the wrong way, can impede those goals, student affairs experts say.

Waddell said about half the students on campus had cell phones a few years ago. Now, nearly every student does. At orientation sessions, Waddell tells parents the college years are a time for emancipation, when young adults learn to handle matters on their own.

“The parents have to give their child the permission to do that,” she said. “It has become increasingly difficult because the students are so used to using their phones and talking to their parents. I just think it delays that maturity.”

The cell phone no doubt can be a conduit in a close parent-child relationship. One thing is certain: Everyday contact between young adults and their parents is the new normal.

“It’s the way families are,” said Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota. “One thing we really have to keep in mind is that life is not like it was when we went to college, even if you went to college five years ago.”

Emylie Leonard and her parents, Mary and Michael, confronted the cell-phone issue last year when Leonard first left Kansas City for the University of Missouri-Columbia. Now 19, Leonard had a rough go at first, with roommate troubles and a bad case of homesickness. She called home often, sometimes more than once a day.

“It made me feel better to call them so much,” Leonard said.

“She’d call and say, `I have my long walk now between this building and this building, and we would have this 10-minute chat,” Mary Leonard said.

It’s not that Leonard lacked self-assurance, Mary Leonard said. But “she was very, very used to always having us here to talk to.” Leonard and her father often talked late into the night over bowls of ice cream.

Still, Mary Leonard found the frequent contact curious, especially thinking back to her college years when calls home were fairly rare.

“You want them to be independent, to be on their own two feet,” Mary Leonard said.

The Leonards’ experience isn’t unusual. In a study released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of all 18- to 25-year-olds said they had talked to their parents in the past day.

“I’ve heard, `Hi, mom. The test was OK. See you later,'” Savage said. “That’s the entire conversation. Or, `Yeah, dad, I got the tires checked. Everything’s fine.'”

Parents should analyze the content of calls rather than worry too much about the frequency, said Karen Levin Coburn of Washington University in St. Louis. It’s a problem, said Coburn, co-author of “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years,” if students want their parents to swoop in at any sign of trouble.

If asked to help solve a manageable problem, parents should not provide step-by-step instructions. They shouldn’t brush off the problem, either. Realize that students can feel overwhelmed at first, Coburn said.

Instead, parents should coach their children to take advantage of campus services, which are numerous, she said. Using parent handbooks and college Web sites, parents can get to know what’s available.

Registration and professor problems, writing assignment troubles, roommate disagreements, all can and should be handled by the student with resources on campus.

“They learn that’s what you do, that there’s another way to solve problems,” Coburn said.

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