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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 26 · Number 2 · Winter 2009


Call Waiting

Photo of students on cell phones

Students Stanley Chung, Eric Moon and Olubunmi Ogunyankin talk on their cell phones. (Photos: Robin DeRieux)

Sometimes parents communicate best by keeping their mouth shut.

When students head off to college, they’re often so busy and focused on the distractions around them that they forget to call home. This doesn’t mean they don’t miss their families. It doesn’t mean they don’t love their parents. It just means they haven’t run out of money yet.

Communicating with your kid becomes much more complicated once college comes between you. While children still live at home, communication is as simple as gathering the whole family around the dinner table and asking them how their day went. Ha! Just kidding — that never worked for us either. But parents don’t actually have to get their teens talking to have an idea of how things are going for them. We see. We swap grocery store gossip with other parents. We receive e-mails from teachers. We get midnight calls from police officers who are happy to let us know what our kids have been up to.

These sources dry up the day our adult-in-the-eyes-of-the-law leaves home, at which point parental opportunities for covert surveillance are pretty much reduced to stalking on Facebook. When kids are away at college, the only means they have of staying in touch besides e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, podcasting, snail mail and Skype is a cell phone that they carry on their person at all times and that could be used to call or send a text message from virtually anywhere at virtually anytime. Which just proves the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him phone home.

No matter how easy the communications revolution has made it to stay in touch, students control the flow of information from college to home. Some students share details easily, taking full advantage of unlimited minutes on the family cell phone plan, which are “free” for only $150 a month. In fact, I’ve heard of families who are so close that they are in contact several times a day. At some point, however, open communication crosses the line and becomes an unhealthy dependency. If you call your kid more than once a day, you may need to ask yourself, will I ever learn to program the TiVo on my own?

College students in contact with their families several times a day? Cripes! The rest of us are wondering what’s wrong with our ring tone.
Don’t worry, lots of parents get put on hold. Some kids rarely call home, or if they do, they don’t say anything important. College students are at that awkward age between childhood and retirement, struggling to stand on their own two subsidized feet. When they reveal details of their daily lives to parents, they invite judgment or, worse, advice, which threatens their wobbly stance. I mean, sheesh, they thought you’d be really proud when they called to say they had pulled an all-nighter and finally beat Halo 3 on “Legendary.” What’s it take to get a pat on the back from parents, anyway? Back to another month of one-word responses.

The day will come, however, when your kid calls to talk, and by that I mean really say something, and hoo boy, will you be sorry. After months of standing faithfully by the land line, poised to offer support over a disappointing grade on a term paper, you’ll get a call on your cell phone late one night. It’s your daughter. She’s home alone, feeling a little nervous because her roommate’s ex-boyfriend has been released from jail, and he still has a key to their apartment. Also, she got her eyebrow pierced, and she’s wondering how to tell whether it’s infected. Is a fever a bad sign? Oh and by the way, she’s decided she’s an existentialist!

What’s your job, as the parent of a college student who has finally grown sure enough of her independence to confide in you? To listen and bite your tongue. Harder. If it’s not bleeding, you’re not really trying.

Good listening is not that little pause between hearing the whole story and then telling someone what to do. That’s problem solving, and you’re paying a bundle for your student to learn that in college. When kids call and vent their concerns and frustrations, they’re not really asking for advice. Even if they are, you’re not allowed to give it. If you’re the one who decides what to do, you’ve deprived your daughter of an opportunity to make mistakes in an amateur arena before she goes out into the real world and gets paid for them.

So, what would a good listener do? Well . . . what do you think a good listener would do?

Maybe a good listener would ask a follow-up question. Then you can summarize your daughter’s statements, which lets her know you heard what she said and gives you something to do with your anxiety besides summoning a SWAT team and an ambulance. Once all of the anguish has been aired, you might ask your daughter what actions she’s considering. (“Have you thought about calling a SWAT team and an ambulance?”) If you’re really brave, you could mention campus resources that might help your daughter decide what to do, at which point she’ll probably get mad and torch anything that sounds like parental input. Stay cool. If you hang up and realize that your hair has caught fire, that’s good listening.*

Am I a good listener?

Um . . . why do you ask?

Well, to be perfectly honest, good listening involves an awful lot of not talking, which I find to be a personal challenge. Our son has never been a chatterbox, and when he first went away to college, we heard little about his new life — as if I was going to publish everything he said in a magazine, or some crazy thing like that. Our initial conversations were primitive, punctuated by long pauses that made me feel as though he was sorting through the debris of his day in search of a scrap of information to share. The first piece of news he delivered with zeal was after midterms, when he found out that he had gotten a perfect score on a calculus test. Here was a morsel suitable to serve up to parents!

Over time, our son became less cautious about what he shares, and I came to accept that, no matter what I’m dying to know, I have to wait until he’s willing to tell. I’m sure that one day he’ll call us to talk, and by that I mean really say something, and hoo boy, then we’ll be sorry.

*After the phone call, your daughter’s next-door neighbor invites her over to play Rock Band, and the crisis is over. Turns out she’s an existentialist too!

Robin DeRieux can be reached at