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Getting your new college kid to communicate: One mom's strategy

Sep. 30, 2013 at 8:04 AM ET

Carolyn and Drew Savage
Savage Family
Carolyn and Drew Savage

I’ve never been a helicopter parent.  

As a former elementary principal I’ve seen the ill effects of moms who couldn’t cut the apron strings so I’ve worked hard to foster self-reliance in my children. I shed no anxious tears on the first day of kindergarten. My sons always rode the school bus home, and if they got themselves into a pickle it was their job to attempt to work it out before I stepped in to assist. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be involved in their lives. I craved information just like every other parent but instead of hovering over my sons to experience their lives alongside them, I relied on creative questioning to learn about their days.

The standard, “How was your day?” was always avoided in our home. Instead I went with questions surrounding favorite subjects or recess. I knew enough about their friends, schedules and teachers to encourage enlightening conversation. Those enthusiastic discussions helped me keep a pulse on my children’s lives. All I had to do was ask the right questions based on the mountain of information I already knew. 

My strategy worked—until college.

It’s been about six weeks since our oldest son, Drew, started at Ohio University. He’s enrolled in the Scripps School of Journalism hoping to graduate with a degree in strategic communications. I honestly don’t even know what that means. In addition to being somewhat clueless about his field of study, he is on an athletic scholarship as a member of the Bobcat cross-country team, an experience that is foreign to me and his father. Out of the 20,000 students at OU’s campus, I know a whopping six—and that’s counting Drew’s roommate, who I’ve only just met.

Knowing so little about Drew’s day-to-day life caused some lack luster conversations during our first couple of phone calls. Turns out, “How’s the food?” is the college equivalent to the equally ineffective, “How was your day?” Not knowing what to ask when I am so desperate for information is frustrating.

I realized I needed some guidance and quick, and was thankful when a friend gave me advice she got from the school her child is attending, the College of Wooster in Ohio. On getting college freshmen to talk, the school gives some tip on what – and what not – to ask.

Don't say: “What are you up to?’ Instead, say: “What are you finding time to do when you aren’t in class?”

Don't say: “Do you like college?” Instead, say: “Tell me a couple of things about college that have surprised you.”

Don't say: “Are things going well? Instead, say: “What has been hard so far this semester? What has been easy so far this semester?” 

Obviously the strategy of avoiding yes-or-no answers is the same, but now it’s more critical to ask open-ended questions, especially given my lack of knowledge of Drew’s day-to-day life. Without these valuable tips I probably wouldn’t know he loves his political science professor, or that he’s met a new friend in African American studies—information I’m thrilled to know.

Of course, I’m swallowing my desire to rapid-fire questions every day. Drew needs to be on his own. There are boundaries to respect. I’ve tried to initiate only one phone call a week, texted here and there, and we’ve Face-Timed twice with his three little sisters. Of course, whenever he reaches out I drop everything and respond.

I may not be hovering, but I am still his mother. And I miss him.  

Carolyn Savage lives in Sylvania, Ohio, with her husband and five children. When not strategizing how to get the scoop on her children she can be found writing about her adventures in motherhood on her blog Mamaonthefly.com.   

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