To Parents of College Students: How are you Encouraging Independence? by: John Basie

To Parents of College Students: How are you Encouraging Independence?

How independent is your college student?

If I asked you to give me number from 1-10, with 1 being “As a parent, I have to be involved almost all the time in order for my student to make a good decision,” and 10 being “I believe he or she is capable of making good decisions without my help most of the time” what number would you give yourself?

What do I mean by “independence?” I do not mean radical individualism or any kind of unhealthy autonomous disposition. Psychologists Korrell Kanoy, Steven Stein, and Howard Book define healthy independence as simply the ability to be self-directed and free from unhealthy emotional dependency on others. This looks like a young person who knows how to get through a day, a week and even month to month making all kinds of decisions and solving problems in a way that would indicate an awareness that his or her choices are the largest factor in determining college success. Yes, there are some exceptions to this, such as unforeseeable tragedies outside of one’s control, but even in that kind of scenario, a young person who has developed a healthy sense of independence will be able to work through the situation with a confidence that wouldn’t otherwise be present. 

For years I’ve seen declining independence in the college student population and the research shows that more and more college students are seeking professional counseling help for issues that the average student twenty years ago would have worked through autonomously. In a 2015 article in Psychology Today, Peter Gray points out that it is now all too common for experienced university faculty to have students falling apart emotionally because of a low grade. Instead of rising to the challenge and saying, “I need to work harder to earn a decent grade,” the students’ attitudes these days compared to two or three decades ago is basically “make the course easier,” or “tell me exactly what I need to know so there is zero ambiguity for me.” This indicates a lack of student resilience, which often stems from a lack of experience in making decisions or working through problems on one’s own.

To be sure, this phenomenon is complex and multifaceted. There isn’t just one cause. However, one obvious cause that just wasn’t nearly as large a challenge as when I was going to college in the 1990s is…parents. Not all parents, but many. I regularly facilitate transition coaching forums for parents of current and soon-to-be college students, and one of the questions I ask them is this: On a scale of one to ten, with one being “I never or almost never do this,” and ten being “I do this regularly,” how often do you allow your student to struggle through a problem rather than immediately solving it for him or her?  The responses I get are, for the most part, characterized by that sheepish grin that says, “Yep, I’m THAT parent.”  I could go on and attempt to try to solve this problem for you, but instead, I’d prefer to point you to my recently published book, Your College Launch Story, Six Things Every Parent Must Do. The book has an entire chapter devoted to the subject of encouraging healthy independence during the transition to college.  Click here if you prefer a physical soft copy.  

Questions to ask yourself as a parent:

  • How is my approach to helping my college encouraging him or her to truly own the college experience?
  • How is my parenting approaching encouraging a healthy independence?
  • How could my student benefit from a higher awareness of the need to be independent?
  • How does healthy independence make a difference in the way my son or daughter flourishes in his or her God-given vocation?

Go Deeper: