No helicopter required: Parents finding positive ways to support college students

Published: Sunday, May 4 2014 12:17 p.m. MDT

Amanda Mills and Rachel Kissel, creative writing students at Southern Utah University, do research for writing projects at the Cedar City public library.

McKenzie Romero, Deseret News

CEDAR CITY — When Amanda Mills decided she wanted to go abroad this summer to study German, her mother told her she loved the idea.

But first, the English major from Syracuse needed to budget her expenses and figure out a way to pay for the trip herself.

"She told me, 'Go figure it out, do a financial consideration, and you can tell me what you come up with,'" said Mills, a junior honors student at Southern Utah University. "If you have to work for something yourself, it means infinitely more."

Mills called her mother often as she researched cost of living expenses for the places she would visit, compared prices on plane tickets, applied for any applicable scholarships she could find and got a summer job.

When she realized she could, in fact, fund the trip herself with little debt, she began to cry. Then she presented the idea to her parents.

The Millses have sought a balance between being supportive yet allowing their college-age children to be responsible for themselves, which they say keeps them away from "helicopter parenting" and has helped their older children develop independence.

Mills will spend three weeks in Vienna in May, followed by a summer working in Cedar City and a semester in Newfoundland, Canada, through the National Student Exchange. She is responsible for making her own plans and is paying for the trip herself.

"I thought, 'I need this experience,'" said Mills, who intends to compose either a short story or one-act play based on her trip. "I'm a creative writer, so I want to see new things. I want that experience of being lost. I want all of this so I can write what I know."

Cosette Mills, Amanda's mother, has stood by proudly as her youngest of four children and only daughter has planned the trip. She is quick to offer advice when Amanda calls home but is careful to leave the final decision in Amanda's hands.

"I didn't exactly give her a list. I just helped her think through the questions," Cosette Mills said. "I let it be her call. … It's been kind of a fun journey to watch her do the exploration and have the courage for this."

But staying involved in her children's lives while still allowing them to be independent hasn't always been easy, she said.

"I'm certainly parenting Amanda differently in college than I did my oldest son. There's no question I was in the 'helicopter parent' mode," Mills said. "I've found I can't own the choices they make, like if they're staying up until midnight or 1 or 2 a.m., or if they're working on their papers the last day or not planning the semester well. I had to get to a point where I consciously said, 'This is their choice.'"

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies reaffirmed the growing concern that over-parenting hinders development in adult children.

College students who experience inappropriate levels of parenting for their age, such as parents monitoring whom their children spend time with or contacting their instructors on their behalf, experience higher levels of depression and decreased satisfaction with life, according to the study.

All four of the Millses' children went away to college, something Cosette Mills was nervous about at first but appreciated later as she saw how they matured. The kids insisted their parents learn to text message to make it easy to stay in touch, and Cosette Mills made sure she knew which classes they were taking so she could ask how each one was going.

Amanda Mills enjoys living on her own and making her own schedule. On Saturdays she gets up early to meet with other creative writing students, who help one another with writing and research on independent projects. She spent the morning on a recent Saturday perusing the shelves of the Cedar City public library helping a friend find books on the 15th-century British judiciary system.

"It is immensely important to me to have my family supporting me, I want to do things to make them proud," said Amanda Mills, who maintains regular contact with her parents by phone but only goes home a few times each semester. "Even in choosing creative writing, which is like the definition of no job security, my parents were like, 'Alright, I'm glad you've found something you're so passionate about, just make sure you know what you need to do to plan for it.'"

Families whose college-age children live at home face their own challenges. Jared Moss, a chemistry student who just graduated from Weber State University, paid for school through scholarships and on-campus jobs but continued living with his mother in Roy to save money on housing.

"There were definitely hard parts transitioning from being a kid in my mom's house to being an adult in my parents' house," Moss said. "I had to be OK with my opinions not being the same as my parents' opinions all the time, but also learning how to grow from that and recognizing I'm not right all the time either."

The Pew Research Center reported in August that a rising number of millennials, as many as 36 percent, lived with their parents in 2012. Nearly half of them were in college.

Moss says having his mother nearby to help with housing, provide encouragement and offer spiritual support through his undergraduate years was an advantage for him as a student. Through college, Moss said, he made sure he saved time to spend time with members of his family to keep those relationships strong.

"I think (spending time with family members) was one of the most important things I could have done through college, because that just positively influences school," Moss said.

He felt responsible for his own life despite living under his mother's roof, he said.

"My mom was being really supportive, but she was also allowing me to be myself," Moss said. "She would tell me, 'Jared, I don't want to give you any advice unless you want it, but, if you need advice, please ask.' She wanted me to grow in my independence and not be dependent on her, but at the same time she was there through every decision."

Moss is applying for a graduate program in organic chemistry at Utah State University this fall and is preparing to move out and get married.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com,Twitter: McKenzieRomero

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