- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

Paula Yass will be excited to see her daughter, Michelle, collect her diploma from Chantilly High School later this month.

After that, a new sort of education will begin. This one is a crash course in things Mrs. Yass thinks her teen should know before leaving for Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond at the end of the summer.

“I think Michelle needs to know how to do laundry,” says Mrs. Yass, a preschool teacher who lives in Herndon. “And maybe some minimal food preparation and how to keep track of things. We need to talk about managing money. She is going to be in an urban setting, so I need to talk about safety. She might say, ‘Oh, Mom,’ but I am going to do it anyway.

“I am going to miss her incredibly,” Mrs. Yass says, “but I am encouraging her to go.”

The summer before heading off to college, travel or work is a transition period for everyone, says Karen Levin Coburn, assistant vice chancellor for students and associate dean for freshman transition at Washington University in St. Louis. Ms. Coburn is also the co-author of the book “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years.”

That last summer is a time when teens are testing a more independent life and parents are trying to imagine fewer hands opening refrigerator doors and turning up the music. It is also a chance to determine where teens are in terms of real-world skills, she says.

“Students vary so much when they get to college,” Ms. Coburn says. “There are some students who have been kept so busy, they don’t know how to structure their time. There are some kids who have been doing laundry forever, and then there are some whose parents don’t even know how to do laundry. It is a major change for everyone, even if you are not going far away.”

No matter where their teen is on the scale of self-sufficiency, parents should review a few key areas before summer’s end, she says. Once they figure out what their teen needs to know, parents should understand that the best way to teach is to show, not tell.

“My most simple advice: Do less talking and more doing,” Ms. Coburn says. “At this point, if you are just talking, they will tune you out. Show them how to separate clothes or actively engage them in planning how much money will be in their bank account.”

Parents also should gauge the specifics of the upcoming situation, says Christine Schelhas-Miller, an instructor in adolescent development at Cornell University and co-author of “Don’t Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years.”

For a teen heading to a dorm and a meal plan, for instance, a lesson in how to make a three-course dinner might be more information than is needed during an already nerve-wracking time, Ms. Schelhas-Miller says.

“There is a lot of stuff going on emotionally and logistically at this time,” she says. “If your teen doesn’t really need to know how to cook, you just might raise his or her anxiety level.”

Ms. Schelhas-Miller says talking about expectations, rather than specific tasks, can ease the transition. That means sitting down in advance and discussing topics such as how much money you will contribute to the bank account and what you expect your teen to contribute from summer jobs; whether you will do your teen’s laundry if he or she brings it home on weekends; when and how you will communicate through e-mail, instant messaging or phone calls.

Talking about some of these topics in advance will help set the tone for a balance of trust and respect, Ms. Schelhas-Miller says.

“You want to believe the child has the skills to do what he has to do,” she says, “but at the same time, you don’t want to communicate, ‘Without me, you’ll screw up.’”

Tackling the basics

There are a few important areas to review before the next phase of life begins, Ms. Coburn says. Some of the main points:

• Time management. “In high school, things are so much more structured,” Ms. Coburn says. “When some kids get to college, they see ‘Oh, I don’t have class on Thursdays; I have all this free time.’ It takes them a while to see that no class doesn’t necessarily mean free time.”

Parents can do their part by easing up their role in time management this summer.

“Say your teen has a summer job,” Ms. Coburn says. ” Don’t wake them in the morning; let the alarm do it. Or if there are things that need to be done by a deadline, don’t bug them. Just let things happen. I know it is hard to step back, but you have to say, ‘My kid is going to college, and no one is going to be there to remind them.’”

Kathleen Driscoll McKee, a Reston woman who has three children in their 30s and one about to graduate from South Lakes High School, says she tried to lead by example when teaching her children about this topic. Growing up, each child had chores and responsibilities.

“I showed them what it is like to have a schedule and an internal schedule,” she says. “After about eighth grade, it was their job to remember, not my job to nag. I didn’t say, ‘It’s time to take out the garbage because tomorrow’s trash day.’ They knew if they didn’t do their job, they would hear about it.”

• Money. A good start is to sit down and talk about what things are going to cost, Ms. Coburn says. Talk about what your teen thinks she will be spending money on, then make a tentative budget. Many schools have information in their orientation packets or online about what it costs to live in that particular town, even if many expenses are covered by the campus meal plan.

Also, just because one budget worked for one child in your family, don’t expect the same one to work for another, Ms. Schelhas-Miller says. This is a highly variable area, depending on where your child goes to school (there is a lot more to spend money on in, say, Boston, than there is in Blacksburg, Va.) and whether your child is high-maintenance or low.

This also is a good time to talk about credit cards. Discuss whether your teen will have access to yours or whether getting his or her own is a good idea.

“Your child will likely be deluged with credit card offers on campus,” Ms. Schelhas-Miller says. “You should have a conversation about not signing up for three of them and maxing them out.”

Mrs. McKee got each of her children a credit card with a $200 limit when they went away to school.

“It was enough to buy books or pay for an emergency trip home,” she says. “It was understood it was not for a new dress or a trip to visit your girlfriend.”

Mrs. Yass says she is planning on also getting a credit card with a low credit limit for her daughter.

• Street smarts. “My feeling is that parents will have had lots of these conversations about sex, alcohol and drugs before their child goes to college,” Ms. Schelhas-Miller says, “but it can’t hurt to have a ‘booster shot’ on the topic. They are going to have a lot more opportunity to do these things, so it is really important to communicate trust.

“Risky behavior is always a continuum,” she says. “There is a difference between drinking a beer and binge drinking. Everyone has to teach their children their own values. Talk about the gray areas. It is one thing to say, ‘The drinking age is 21 …,’ but the parent has to realize her child is going to be in drinking situations.”

Ms. Coburn says one good way to bring up these topics is to present your teen with hypothetical situations such whether to get into a car with a friend who has had too much to drink or what to do if he or she is left at a party and has to walk home alone.

Changing the relationship

While a teen may be negotiating life with a roommate, parents will be adjusting to life with a “grown” child. Sometimes, it is a tough transition for both, Ms. Schelhas-Miller says.

“It is a big thing to realize your role has changed,” she says. “We emphasize to parents that they should now take on the role of a mentor rather than making decisions for their children; they can raise questions and sometimes help them figure out what possible steps to take. They have lost the day-to-day control, but that doesn’t mean they have lost influence.

“You don’t do a child any favors by managing their life at this point,” she says. “The ultimate goal of parenting is you want children to grow up and make decisions on their own.”

Still, there are some crisis areas where parents will need to step in, Ms. Schelhas-Miller says. Situations in which a teen is close to flunking out or dropping out or seems seriously depressed will warrant prompt parental intervention.

“If it is a crisis, you may want to get in your car and get to campus,” she says. “The hard part is figuring out whether it is a crisis.”

Consistent, effective listening and communicating can help with issues either big or small, Ms. Schelhas-Miller says. Parents should try to listen but avoid judging, moralizing or fixing the problem, she says.

For instance, Mrs. McKee’s daughter, Shannon, now a 34-year-old writer with a graduate degree, changed colleges and majors several times.

“After about the third school, I stopped paying,” Mrs. McKee says. “I think you have to let them try things and make mistakes long before they leave the house. Some things in our family are nonnegotiable, such as wearing seat belts. Other things are set in place — such as in our family, we don’t drink and drive, we do go to college, and we give back to the community.

“Almost every other decision can be made by weighing the pros and cons and seeing what works best,” she says. “The children still do call [and ask my advice]. We talk our way through it. I ask them what they think, but I don’t act as an authority.”

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