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Campus Life 200: Handling Hovering Parents
by Harlan Cohen

Photo by Craig Calefate

A freshman at Texas A&M Commerce told me this story:

I’m the older of two daughters. From the first day I left for college, which was about five hours away, they called me every single night to ask the same annoying questions about every detail of my day. I didn’t say anything at first; I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. But one night, a month or so into the semester, I lost it and blew up at them. That’s when I got in trouble for giving them “attitude.” But they also asked me, “Do you want us to call every night?” and surprisingly, when I said, “No, I’ll call you when I’m free,” they were fine with that. A semester later, things are much better. We talk two to three times a week—and we regularly send email and instant messages.

Do you have parents who hover and get way too involved in life on your campus? When something is wrong at school, instead of letting you deal with the problem, do they quickly intervene to try to fix it for you? Are you contributing to the situation by involving them so frequently that they have come to believe you want them to solve your problems?

Facing uncomfortable situations is an unavoidable part of the college experience. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right. So, stop to think before you call, text, or email your parents about the roommate you hate. Besides setting yourself up as always needing their help, kvetching about the situation is likely to make it worse. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out in The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-to-Day Guide to Ethical Living: “The Torah tells us that Joseph’s brothers ‘so hated him that they could not speak a friendly word to him’ (Genesis 37:4). The hatred grew and grew, and eventually Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery.” While you aren’t going to sell your roommate into slavery (that will definitely get you expelled), if both of you can agree on the following two perspectives, you may improve the situation without outside intervention:

We want to get along. Roommates who want to get along find a way to get along.

We don’t need to be best friends, just roommates. Roommates just have to respect each other and each other’s things. Being friends will be a bonus.

Your parents can also be helpful, but it’s important to make college your own experience. The following five suggestions can help you and your parents loosen the grip without letting go:

  1. Understand their motivations. Know that they’re acting out of love (and not a love of making you miserable). They miss you. They want to hear from you. Try to appreciate what else they’re dealing with—debt, aging, your new independence, and your not living at home. Point them to campus resources for parents.

  2. Acknowledge their wisdom. If they’re giving you unsolicited advice:

    Listen to them carefully.

    Tell them you appreciate what they’re saying.

    Repeat their advice back to them so they know you heard them.

    Ask yourself if what they’re saying is right for you.

    And then—assuming you’re sober, healthy, being reasonable, and acting responsibly—do what makes you happy. Meanwhile, make sure you have a strong support system on campus to bolster you up.

  3. Establish boundaries for welcomed contact. Set a day of the week to check in. Sundays often work well. Also, create parameters as to when your parents will visit you on campus, and when
    you’ll come home.

  4. Be a compassionate Facebook friend. Parents don’t always know that posting naked pictures of you as a baby, publicly embarrassing you on your wall, or innocently poking fun at your friends is all so very wrong. Before limiting their access, help them understand where they went awry and how to be better Facebook “friends.” For example, explain that a parent commenting on friends’ comments makes them uncomfortable. If your parent keeps commenting, then revoke his/her commenting privileges.

  5. Shock them with kindness. It’s easy: Mail them a handwritten “thank you” card or letter. They will eat that card thing up. Just avoid asking for money in the same card.

—Harlan Cohen, the author of The Happiest Kid on Campus ( and The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, from which this has been adapted


Union for Reform Judaism.