Parents and families as partners (when appropriate)

I’ve been spending time these last couple weeks talking to parents and family members of our incoming cohort of students. Why bother? In my experience, parents and families still play an important role in many students’ lives, despite the fact that the students are, in fact, adults. And if we work in partnership with families, we can improve our chances at seeing every student be successful here at OCAD U, which is, of course, our goal.

My general message to families is: there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that your job is not over yet. Though sending a son or daughter off to university is indeed a milestone, there’s still lots of supporting work to be done.

The good news is that we’re well-equipped as an institution to work with you and your student through some of the transitional hurdles, whether that be health, academic, financial, social or cultural. By and large, those of us who work in student affairs and those of us who teach first year actually enjoy working with young or “emerging” adults. In short, we get it.

I do like to set expectations about communication with families right up front. The law is clear here: our relationship is with the student. We do not communicate any personal information about students — that includes whether they are registered here or not, their grades, whether they’ve paid their fees — to family members unless the student has given us consent to do so, or in the unlikely event that we have a sense the student is in danger.

For me, the most important shift in dealing with parents is to remember that it’s not about me anymore. While I would have been absolutely HORRIFIED if my parents stepped within a kilometre of my campus, that’s not the relationship that many, or even most, of today’s undergraduates have with their families. Family relationships also have a cultural context; so it’s important that we staff and faculty refrain from imposing our own cultural expectations onto students and their families.

I object to the term “helicopter parents” and all of the negative images of parents generated by the media. Yes, some parents cross the line. But there are usually circumstances that have driven them to pick up the phone or write an email. And the vast majority are understanding, quietly encouraging and appropriately supportive.